In 1970 a new trend in narcotics law began to spread: Legislators began creating Drug Free School Zones, imposing harsh penalties on drug crimes committed within them. The theory behind these zones was straightforward: kids are the last people we want drug dealers to target; schoolyards are the last place we want them plying their violent trade; so why not create an incentive to keep drugs elsewhere? “Drug-free zones around schools offer communities one way to give students a place where they can play and talk without being threatened by drug dealers and drug users,” one sheriff’s department declares on its webpage.
Then the same webpage offers some confounding advice:
Don't stop at the school's boundaries. Expand your drug-free zone efforts to any area besieged by problems associated with drug and alcohol abuse.
You can see the problem: If a community subjects all areas with drug abuse to harsher penalties, the incentive to keep drugs away from schoolyards vanishes.
And yet, jurisdictions all over America fell into that very trap.
The perverse results are captured vividly in a Reason investigation conducted by Lauren Krisai and C.J. Ciaramella, who marshal policy data and mapping technology to clarify exactly how encompassing some of these zones are. They focus on Tennessee:
Data obtained from the Tennessee government show there are 8,544 separate drug-free school zones covering roughly 5.5 percent of the state's total land area. Within cities, however, the figures are much higher. More than 27 percent in Nashville and more than 38 percent in Memphis are covered by such zones. They apply day and night, whether or not children are present, and it's often impossible to know you're in one.
"In places like Nashville, almost the entire city is a drug-free zone," Funk says. "Every church has day care, and they are a part of drug-free zones. Also, public parks and seven or eight other places are included in this classification. And almost everybody who has driven a car has driven through a school zone. What we had essentially done, unwittingly, was increased drug penalties to equal murder penalties without having any real basis for protecting kids while they're in school."
The ubiquity and opacity alone undermine the ostensible purpose of the zones. And then there is the wrinkle that most directly contradicts the policy’s core logic.