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John Hageman, Forum News Service, Published February 20 2014

'Drug-free zones' stiffen penalties for offenders; four women charged in Grand Forks meth case

GRAND FORKS – State laws that stiffen penalties for making or selling drugs near children vary across the nation.

Some states include universities in those “drug-free zones.” Others include public parks, public housing, school buses and YMCAs. The size of those zones range from 300 feet to half a mile.

In North Dakota, manufacturing a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of a school, child care center, preschool facility or higher education institution is an aggravating factor that can elevate the charges someone faces.

It’s that law that four women are accused of breaking when they were arrested Tuesday, after allegedly making methamphetamine near Schroeder Middle School here.

Kathy Joan Kielty, Audrey Marie Morris, Ashley Marie Brown and Tina Mae Metcalf are all charged with manufacturing meth within 1,000 feet of a school, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Protecting children

An early version of the laws creating drug-free zones was first passed on the federal level in the 1970s. States began passing their own versions by the 1980s, as President Ronald Reagan launched the “War on Drugs,” according to the Washington D.C.-based organization the Sentencing Project.

“The premise behind drug-free zone laws was that drug trafficking near schools posed a danger to children,” states a policy brief from the Sentencing Project. “In order to protect children from drug activity, lawmakers established protected zones around the places where children were most likely to be present, including schools and public parks.”

Jody Thompson, assistant superintendent for Grand Forks Public Schools, said drug activity “is never a positive environment for our students to be exposed to.” He said Wednesday was the first they heard about the nearby drug operation.

“It was certainly surprising that there was that sort of activity even within our own community, much less adjacent to one of our schools,” Thompson said. “We work pretty close with the Grand Forks Police Department, and I’m sure if they felt there was any potential harm to our students or staff they would have informed us.”

Thompson said it was the first instance in his 26 years with the school district that such an incident has come up. It may be the first time such charges have been filed in Grand Forks County, State’s Attorney Peter Welte said Wednesday.

Questions

The establishment of drug-free zones across the country has raised some concerns about racial and income disparity, and whether the zones are effective in deterring crime. Some legislatures have reformed their laws.

Nicole Porter, director for advocacy at the Sentencing Project, said drug-free zones are one tool prosecutors may use to encourage plea deals from defendants facing long sentences.

“It’s not rooted in any sort of reality in terms of actually deterring people from using drugs,” she said.

Welte declined to comment on the societal effects of the drug zone laws, and said prosecutors are working with the laws put in place by the Legislature.