What exactly do the “drug-free zone” signs mean? Aren’t illegal drugs illegal everywhere? Who puts them up and why?

It’s true; there’s no place to legally buy, sell, or use drugs in the District. But “drug-free zones”—a police designation that lasts up to five days—are especially bad places to take part in drug-related activities since they allow D.C. cops to arrest groups who appear to be using, purchasing, or selling illegal drugs if they fail to disperse after being instructed to do so by a uniformed officer. In non-drug-free zones, police need to establish probable cause before forcing groups to disperse.

The D.C. Council passed the Anti-Loitering/Drug Free Zone Act in 1996 to allow the chief of police to designate drug-free zones in the wake of periods of disproportionate drug-related offenses. However, the first drug-free zone wasn’t designated until April 3, 2003, after a rash of possession and distribution arrests in the Truxton Circle area. In the years since, the police department has designated drug free zones in every police district except the 2nd.

But does the designation actually reduce drug use, purchases or sales?

“While we may be able to disrupt drug activity for five days, if drug dealers are back on Day 6 we may not have done a whole lot,” says police spokesperson Kevin Morrison.

A number of advocacy groups, including the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a nonprofit research and public policy organization that advocates for alternatives to incarceration, agree. In March, JPI released a report evaluating drug-free zones in the District, Utah, Illinois, and other areas that suggests that drug-free zones do not deter drug sales.

“The laws were put in place to be a deterrent, but the way they play out its clear that they are not working,” says Jason Ziedenberg, the institute’s executive director.

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