Analyzing Drug-Free Zones Across America

Table of Contents

The enforcement of drug-free school zone laws has been a key strategy in the United States’ war on drugs for decades. These zones typically define an area around schools where drug offenders face additional charges or enhanced sentencing. Yet while “Drug-Free School Zone” signs may be a familiar sight near schools, many people remain unaware of just how far-reaching these zones are – both geographically and legally.

Originally intended to help keep schools safe from drug-dealing activity and deter dealers from selling to students, many states have since expanded these laws to apply to day cares, churches, parks, and even shopping malls. As these areas have grown, the real-world impact of such laws has become increasingly out of step with their intent.

These zones can extend for hundreds or even thousands of feet around designated areas, extending far beyond school property. In densely populated urban areas, these protected spaces are so common that entire cities can be covered by drug-free zones – with the accompanying mandatory minimum sentences of years behind bars. Offenders may be charged for drug crimes taking place in these zones when schools are not in session or even if the offenses took place in their home and they live within such a zone. And because these areas are not clearly marked, many will have no way of knowing that they’re at risk of additional felony charges or prison time.

Though developed with the intent of protecting children from the scourge of illicit drugs, the enforcement of these laws today often serves to leverage guilty pleas from those not yet proven guilty. Despite their admirable purpose, in some places drug zones have led to a reality of harsh and seemingly arbitrary punishments, with whole towns potentially subject to much greater penalties. Read on to see how extensive drug-free zones are in your state and city.

How Big Can Drug-Free Zones Be?

State Percent Covered by
Drug-Free Zones
Total Area Covered1
(Square Miles)
1. Alabama 73% 38,267
2. South Carolina 18% 5,764
3. Arizona 17% 19,378
4. Pennsylvania 13% 5,987
5. Connecticut 11% 610
6. Florida 10% 6,576
7. Mississippi 10% 4,844
8. Utah 10% 8,490
9. Nevada 9% 9,952
10. Rhode Island 6% 93

1 https://www.census.gov/geo/reference/state-area.html

It’s easy to think of the area around schools as relatively small, limited, and simple to avoid. In practice, legally defined drug-free zones can sometimes encompass a significant portion of a state – areas amounting to thousands of square miles.

Alabama has the farthest-reaching drug-free zones, setting a three-mile radius around schools, colleges, and public housing. This has resulted in 73% of the state being covered by these zones. Pick a random location in Alabama, and about three times out of four, you could be subject to a five-year mandatory-minimum prison term – with no possibility of parole – for selling illicit drugs in that area. Because drug-free zone–related charges often carry such a heavy sentence, they can easily be used as a threat by prosecutors who coerce defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges.

While Alabama may be particularly extreme, broad drug-free zones have become surprisingly common: in seven states, 10% or more of their areas fall within these zones. Arizona, with 17% of the state covered, has 19,378 square miles of drug-free zones. And Utah, with 10% coverage, has 8,490 square miles – an area of about 4.1 million football fields covered by these laws. The actual area occupied by schools and adjacent properties makes up only a small fraction of this total space, yet many drug offenses occurring within these zones – even several blocks away from school property – remain subject to the strictest of penalties.

“Drug-Free” Cities

If 73% of a state being covered by drug-free zones sounds extraordinary, the situation is even direr for cities. Throughout the country, 40 cities with a population of over 50,000 have land that’s affected 50% or more by drug-free zone laws. For 11 of them, more than 75% of the city is legally considered a drug-free zone. And once again, Alabama – and its nearly three-mile-wide drug-free zone radius – leads the pack; 95.8% of Montgomery and 94.6% of Decatur, Alabama, fall under these laws.

The remarkable reach of this legislation in American cities highlights one way in which drug-free zones can operate unfairly. Drug offenders can face severe and additional penalties not only for the crimes they’ve committed but simply for living in an urban area rather than a suburban or rural region. When so many areas are covered by these laws, they may no longer serve their purpose of providing an extra deterrent to selling illicit drugs in areas where children are likely to be. The imbalanced effect of these laws is plain to see based on how they’ve been applied. In 2005, a New Jersey commission found that out of 90 convictions under the state’s drug-free school zone laws, only two took place on school property – and none were prosecuted for the sale of drugs to minors.

Drug-Free Zone Laws in Your State

So which places count when establishing a drug-free zone, and just how large are the related zones? It depends on which state you’re in, and there’s no uniform definition. If you’re in Vermont or Wyoming, it’s limited to areas 500 feet from a school, but this restriction is hardly the norm in most states; only 18 restrict their definition of a drug-free zone to schools.

At the extreme, Utah comes in first for the number of different types of places that define drug-free zones. Beyond colleges, day care centers, and parks, the state also applies these laws to the 1,000 feet surrounding libraries, movie theaters, arcades, and even parking lots. Arkansas, with 11 defined drug-free zones, is similarly expansive in its laws, covering YMCAs and skating rinks. Due to how widely these laws can vary, many people may be completely unaware that, for example, being within 1,000 feet of a shopping mall could escalate any drug offense to a felony.

How Much of Your City is a Drug-Free Zone?

Considering how these laws have expanded to encompass such a vast area of cities and states, you might be wondering if you’re in a drug-free zone right now. Select your state and city or nearby town from the menus above to see the drug-free zones around you as well as how much of your city they cover.

Effectively Addressing Substance Use and Addiction

Mandatory minimum prison sentences can close off the option of diversion programs and alternatives such as rehab and substance abuse treatment programs; countless nonviolent drug offenders could be exposed to this punitive sentencing simply based on where they live. Drug-free school zones may come from a place of good intention, but they’ve since spiraled far beyond protecting students from exposure to drugs.
It’s tempting to argue that the simplest way to avoid the consequences of harsh drug sentencing is to not get involved with drugs in the first place. However, this overlooks the fact that, for the many individuals already struggling with substance abuse, continued drug use is a compulsion extremely difficult to put a stop to. Also important to keep in mind – those suffering from substance use disorders have a potentially much more favorable long-term recovery outlook when subjected to treatment rather than excessive prison sentences.

To be sure, the consequences of drug abuse extend beyond arrests and legal sentencing. Even those who avoid legal entanglements can have their lives upended by the far-reaching repercussions to mental and physical health, interpersonal relationships, school and work performance, and numerous other areas of daily functioning. ProjectKnow.com provides a wealth of information for you to learn more about the effects of and treatment for drug, alchol and behavioral addictions, as well as a treatment center directory to help you locate recovery facilities throughout the country. If you or someone you know is negatively affected by substance use, treatment is available – call 1-888-986-4028 for more information about life-saving rehabilitation and recovery options. Professional, personalized treatment programs are ready to assist with your fight against substance use – no matter where you live.

Methodology

Data on state drug-free zone definitions, distances, and penalties were compiled by SentencingProject.org (a few updates were made to its drug-free zone descriptions to account for more recent changes). Public and private school locations were acquired from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Common Core of Data. City and state population and area data were sourced from the U.S. Census Bureau. The area of states and cities covered by drug-free zones was calculated using the legally defined radius for each jurisdiction. All locations included under drug-free zone laws were pulled programmatically using Open Street Map. Drug-free zone areas were calculated in such a manner that overlapping drug zones were not counted twice.

Sources

http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=bkmk
https://www.census.gov/geo/reference/state-area.html
http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/sen_Drug-Free%20Zone%20Laws.pdf
http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1072&context=jlsj
https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/140213NCJRS.pdf
http://www.sportsknowhow.com/football/field-dimensions/nfl-football-field-dimensions.html
http://sentencing.nj.gov/report/december05.pdf
http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/API

Fair Use

Those suffering from addiction belong in treatment and not in the criminal justice system. ProjectKnow.com undertook this research hoping to shine light on drug zone laws which may ultimately have the effect of prevent those who belong in treatment from accessing such resources. It is our mission to connect those in need with the right treatment providers, and to provide information about substance abuse and addiction.

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