You may have heard of “drug free zones,” but you may not realize how common they are. In the 1970s, long before President Reagan declared a “war on drugs,” Congress passed an early version of a “drug free zone” law that increased penalties for certain drug offenses committed near schools. The idea was well-intentioned – legislators didn't want drug dealers targeting kids, and they wanted to give children safe places to play, away from drug users and dealers. But as these “drug free zones” expanded, they covered more and more area inside towns and cities. Instead of working to fix the root of the drug problem, lawmakers ended up trying to legislate away the symptoms.
In the 1980s, states began to follow the federal government's lead, implementing even more expansive “drug free zones.” Now, all 50 states have these laws, and many have strayed from their original purpose. For example, in Alabama, people arrested for drug sales as far as three miles from a school can face a mandatory five-year prison sentence. In Texas, the law isn't so extreme. Still, if the police arrest you for a drug offense anywhere near a school or college campus, a playground, youth center, or even a public pool or arcade, you could face harsher penalties and a longer prison sentence.
What is a Drug Free Zone?
A drug free zone is an area designated by federal or state law to enforce drug laws more harshly than in other locations. If the police catch you with illegal drugs in a drug free zone, you can face harsher penalties, including higher fines and lengthier prison sentences.
Drug free zones in Texas include:
- Anywhere within 1,000 feet of school property, a youth center, or a playground,
- Within 300 feet of a public swimming pool or video arcade, or
- On a school bus.
The statute is quite specific, listing drug free zones as anywhere, “in, on, or within 1,000 feet of any real property owned, rented, or leased to a school or school board, the premises of a public or private youth center, or a playground,” “in, on, or within 300 feet of the premises of a public swimming pool or video arcade facility,” or on a school bus. Tex. Health & Safety Code § 481.134 (2015). Under the statute:
- Schools include institutions of higher learning, public or private elementary or secondary schools, and daycare centers.
- A youth center includes any recreational facility or gym intended for the use of kids age 17 or under and regularly provides athletic, civic, or cultural activities.
- A playground does not have to be on school grounds. It should be intended for recreation, open to the public, and have three or more play stations intended for kids' recreation like slides, swings, or teeterboards.
- A “video arcade facility” includes any facility open to the public, including kids 17 or under, is intended primarily for using pinball machines or video games, and has at least three pinball or video machines.
To show that a drug offense happened in a “drug free zone,” the
The Texas drug free zone law doesn't apply if the offense happens in a private home, and there were no minors present at the time.
What are Illegal Drugs in Texas?
The Texas Controlled Substances Act covers the possession, sale, and manufacture of controlled substances or illegal drugs. See Tex. Health & Safety Code § 480.001, et seq. (1985). Penalties for possessing, selling, and manufacturing these substances in Texas can be steep, including jail time, fines, mandatory drug counseling, suspension of your driver's license, and more.
The degree and penalties for drug crimes can vary widely based on the amount and circumstances involved in the crime. Penalties for drug crimes in Texas can vary anywhere from a Class C misdemeanor to a first-degree felony. For example, possession of an illegal substance can be a misdemeanor or felony depending on the type of drug, the amount of drug, and whether the accused had an intent to sell the drug.
Texas Controlled Substance Act Penalty Groups
Texas law divides controlled substances into four penalty groups:
These drugs include opioids, cocaine, mescaline, ketamine, methamphetamine, opium derivatives or opiates, including heroin, psilocybin, and similar hallucinogens. Penalty Group 1A includes LSD. This group's penalties can start at two years in jail and a $10,000 fine but increase up to $250,000 and life in jail for possessing more than 400 grams.
This penalty group includes hashish and cannabinols derived from cannabis and marijuana, ecstasy or MDMA, and PCP. This group's penalties start at two years in jail for possessing under one gram and can increase to up to a $50,000 fine and life in prison for possessing more than 400 grams.
This group includes opiates and opioids not included in penalty group one, plus anabolic steroids, benzodiazepines, sedatives such as Valium, Ritalin, and other prescription drugs with a sedative or stimulant effect and the potential for addictive abuse. The penalties start at one year in jail and a $4,000 fine and increase to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for possessing more than 200 grams.
Penalty group four include opioids and opiates not listed in penalty groups one or three, as well as chemical compounds and prescription medications that people can easily abuse. Penalties for this group are similar for penalty group three and can increase to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for possessing more than 200 grams.
If Houston police arrest you for any of these drug crimes in a “drug free zone,” the degree of the crime and the minimum penalties increase dramatically.
Penalties for Violating a Drug Free Zone
Under Texas law, violating a drug free zone can increase the degree of the drug crime charged.
An offense otherwise punishable as a state jail felony under Section 481.112, 481.1121, 481.113, 481.114, or 481.120 is punishable as a felony of the third degree, and an offense otherwise punishable as a felony of the second degree under any of those sections is punishable as a felony of the first degree, if it is shown at the punishment phase of the trial of the offense that the offense was committed [in a drug free zone].
Tex. Health & Safety Code § 481.134(b) (2015). The statute also increases the minimum confinement for drug offenses in drug free zones by five years and doubles the maximum allowable fine. In Texas, possession charges are not typically felonies for a first offense. But if the police arrest you for possession of an illegal substance in a drug free zone, it becomes a state jail felony.
Exceptions to Texas Drug Free Zones
In many states, people arrested for drug crimes in private homes near drug free zones could face enhanced penalties. In Texas, however, there are exceptions to drug free zones if:
- The crime happens in a private residence,
- There were no children under 18 in the home,
- And you did not make money off of the crime.
Federal Drug Free Zone Laws
There are also federal drug free zone laws, which come into play during the sentencing phase of federal drug crimes. Congress supplemented the Controlled Substances Act with additional penalties for some offenses. See 21 U.S.C. § 841. Now, the penalties for manufacturing, distributing, and possessing illegal drugs with an intent to distribute are doubled or tripled if it happens within a certain distance of a school or other facility regularly used by children.
The Controlled Substances Act has five schedules or classifications of drugs similar to Texas penalty groups under the Texas Controlled Substances Act. Minimum penalties for simple possession can start at up to one year in prison and up to a $1,000 fine and increase according to the crime's schedule, amount, and circumstances.
In language similar to Texas's law, federal law increases penalties for Illegal federal drug sales within 1,000 feet of a public or private elementary school, vocational or secondary school, public or private college, junior college, university, playground, public housing, or within 100 feet of a public or private youth center, public swimming pool, or video arcade facility. In some cases, committing a drug offense in a federal drug free zone can double or even triple the penalties.
Collateral Consequences of a Drug Free Zone Drug Conviction
It can be easy for law enforcement to manipulate drug free zones. The police may wait until their target is on the way to a bus stop and walking past a local elementary school to arrest them. The accused may not have any connection to the school and no intention to stop there, but they now face harsher penalties and up to triple the prison time. A prosecutor won't hesitate to use this additional power to force a defendant to plead guilty. If the police arrest you for a drug offense in a “drug free zone,” you need an experienced criminal defense lawyer right away.
The consequences of a drug conviction can also last beyond a prison term and fine. Once you have a criminal record, if you have child custody issues, you could lose custody or find your visitation suspended or revoked. You could also face:
- Difficulty continuing your education. You may find that some colleges, graduate schools, and professional schools won't admit you with a criminal record, and you may be ineligible for financial aid.
- Difficulty finding a job. Many employers perform criminal background checks on their employees. Even if your conviction is for a misdemeanor, you could find it difficult to obtain a job.
- An inability to obtain a security clearance. Your criminal background will be a part of any comprehensive background check for a security clearance.
- An inability to hold a law enforcement position or a position within the court system.
- An inability to obtain or retain a professional license like a medical, nursing, teaching, CPA, law, or pilot’s license. If you already hold a professional license, your licensing authority may suspend or revoke your license.
- Difficulty obtaining a mortgage or loan for a home.
- Difficulty obtaining a loan for a car.
- Difficulty renting an apartment.
- If you have a felony conviction, you could lose your right to own or purchase a firearm.
How Can a Texas Lawyer Help?
While an arrest for a drug charge can seem helpless, particularly if the police have tacked on “drug free zone” penalties, it's important to remember that you are innocent until proven guilty. A drug charge does not mean a court will convict you, no matter what the police and prosecutors say to you. There are defenses to drug charges in Texas, including:
- The drugs weren't yours.
- You have a valid medical prescription.
- It wasn't a controlled substance.
- You didn't possess or have control over the drugs.
- You didn't knowingly or intentionally possess the drugs.
- There is insufficient evidence of the crime.
- There are possible constitutional challenges to the arrest, search, or detention.
A skilled Houston criminal defense attorney experienced in handling drug charges can examine your case and recommend the best options for a vigorous defense.
Attorney Doug Murphy has extensive experience representing defendants charged with drug crimes in Texas, and he is Board Certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. U.S. News and World Report named him to the Best Lawyers in America for Houston for 2021 and has named him one of the Best Lawyers in America by Woodward White from 2013-2021. Doug is active in the Houston community as well. The Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association awarded him the Sharon Levine Unsung Hero Award for his work with others to expose flaws in the Houston Police Department's Blood Alcohol Testing vans, which led to the police department decommissioning the vans.
Doug brings more than 20 years of criminal defense trial experience to passionately defending his clients. He understands the importance of protecting your reputation, freedom, and livelihood with a zealous and diligent defense. Contact him today online or at 713-229-8333.