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What decriminalization doesn't cover

By Kristi Allen
On March 11, 2014

Marijuana decriminalization in Connecticut and across the nation has been hailed as a win for civil liberties, our overburdened justice system and for the low income and minority communities disproportionately affected by the drug war. Unfortunately, there's an overlooked loophole in our new drug policies. People are still receiving unnecessarily harsh penalties for violations in drug free school zones - and UConn students are affected too.
Drug free zone laws set up a radius around places such as schools, public housing complexes and daycare centers where penalties for drug violations are higher than they are elsewhere. Congress enacted the first school zone laws 1970 and most states followed suit in the '80s as part of a 'tough on crime' stance. The laws' purpose is to discourage drug dealers from selling to young people and keep drug use in general away from children, but in reality, they've created serious inequalities with the enforcement of drug laws.
According to the Sentencing Project, all 50 states have some form of drug free school zone laws, although the design of the laws and the penalties they impose varies widely state by state. In Arkansas, possession of 2 grams of methamphetamine within a school zone will automatically add 10 years to a sentence, whereas in other states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, extra penalties are only added for sale of drugs. Thirteen states have mandatory minimum sentences or sentence add-ons.
In most states (34 to be exact), the size of drug free school zones is 1,000 feet in every direction from the protected area, although in Connecticut it's 1,500 feet. 31 states also add further restrictions to drug violations in areas beyond schools. Arkansas's laws are the most expansive, covering 1,000 feet around schools, public parks, public housing facilities, day care centers, colleges and universities, recreation centers, skating rinks, Boys' and Girls' Clubs, substance abuse treatment facilities and churches.
The effect of these laws is that they often add extreme penalties to drug use in private homes, after school hours or in other circumstances where children are not at all affected. According to Sam Tracy, former student body president of UConn and Chairman of the Board of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, more than 2,700 UConn students live within E.O. Smith's drug free school zone. Because Connecticut's school zone laws include simple possession, a student with a small amount of marijuana in their dorm in Buckley, Shippee, Mansfield Apartments and parts of South could face a mandatory minimum sentence of one year, while their peers in the next building over could get off with a fine. School zone laws charges are often dropped for UConn students, but usually at a high cost in legal fees.
The real issue is the effect these policies have on cities. 1,500 feet may not seem like much, but in densely populated urban areas, three football fields is an enormous distance. School zones in cities usually cover numerous private residences and businesses. Because these laws often cover large sections of high density, low-income areas, the urban poor and minority communities are disproportionately affected.
In Connecticut, schools, daycare centers and public housing are included in school zone laws. Between these three categories of protected areas, virtually all of New Haven and Hartford are within a school zone (Check out the Justice Policy Institute report "Disparity by Design" for excellent graphics and information on this). Decriminalization of marijuana barely affects some of the communities it was supposed to help. These low income minority populations suffer all the more from increased penalties for all drug sales, while sprawling suburban communities are largely unaffected by these laws.
Covering entire cities with these laws also means there's no incentive for dealers to avoid schools. They don't seem to be very effective either. The number of prisoners receiving mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations has increased, and a recent study from the former Attorney General of Massachusetts showed that only about one percent of drug violations surveyed involved school children in any way.
Thankfully, momentum for reform is building. Last December, the Connecticut Sentencing Commission unanimously approved a recommendation to reduce school zones from 1,500 to 200 feet. A bill reducing the size of school zones to 300 feet was defeated in the state House of Representatives last year as well. Hopefully, the bill will be re-introduced this session. It's time for Connecticut to get rid of this cruel and ineffective drug policy.  


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