States Taking Mixed Approach To Drug-Free School Zones

By McCarton Ackerman 09/27/16

Delaware, Indiana, Utah and Kentucky are reducing the size of their drug-free zones while other states are opting to expand due to the opioid epidemic.

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States Taking Mixed Approach To Drug-Free School Zones

Drug-free school zones reached their peak in the ‘80s, but some states are now deciding to scale them back. Others have chosen to expand them, however, despite there being evidence that larger drug-free school zones are not as effective in keeping drugs away from children.

Being caught with drugs within 1,000 feet of a drug-free school zone can result in double or triple the normal penalties for drug offenses—which sometimes means decades behind bars, without the chance of parole.  

According to a report by Pew Charitable Trusts, some states are now reconsidering the effectiveness of the school zones, which are responsible for landing many non-violent offenders in prison. 

Delaware, Indiana, Utah and Kentucky are some of the states which are now reducing the size of their drug-free school zones. However, other states including Texas, Arkansas and Hawaii are expanding the size of them to include public parks and anywhere else children play, according to Pew. 

Arkansas already has one of the broadest definitions of a drug-free school zone, which includes colleges, skating rinks, community centers and churches.

Research out of Massachusetts, published in June 2008 in Criminal Justice Review, showed that the school zones aren’t effective in keeping drugs away from children when they’re that broad. Even worse, it can lead to unintentionally targeting densely populated urban neighborhoods.

“You’re increasing the penalties for crime for an entire city,” said Aleks Kajstura, the author of a 2014 study by the Prison Policy Initiative on drug-free school zones. “You’re no longer steering people away from these specially protected zones. There’s nowhere for them to go.”

Officials in Tennessee, which is also a strict school zone state, argue that the law provides a clear deterrent from putting drugs in the hands of children.

“If you sell drugs in school zones, you’re going to get an enhanced penalty,” Terry Ashe of the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association told Pew. “I’m not so sure that throwing out the baby with the bathwater is the right thing to do.” 

However, it’s clear these school zones won’t ever fully curtail drug use among students. A 2012 teen drug use survey from the National Center on Addiction and Substances Abuse at Columbia University showed that almost half of American high school students knew where to buy drugs at school.

About 17% of students reported using drugs, alcohol or cigarettes during the school day. Marijuana was the most popular drug, with 91% of students reporting pot being available for purchase on school property.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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