What Are Drug Free Zones?

Almost two-thirds of all arrests countrywide take place for drug-related offenses. These include manufacture, delivery or possession of a range of controlled substances and the seriousness of the charge depends on the quantity and value of the drugs involved. The authorities consider drugs to be the root cause of many of the offenses handled by the police and the justice system and believe that keeping them away from children is critical.

Birth of the Drug Free Zone (DFZ)

Children PlayingBecause there are so many drug-related cases in Texas at any given time, police and the justice system simply can’t keep up. The result? The Drug-Free Zone (DFZ) or “source location,” which is based on the idea that by creating these zones the law can protect children from exposure to drugs. In reality, this law makes it possible to dish out higher penalties to anyone caught with drugs in these areas than in other areas.

Types of Texas DFZs

The most common type of drug-free zone is a school’s premises, but the category also includes any other type of institution for higher learning, youth center or playground, whether it is public or privately-owned. The zone extends to an area of 1,000 feet from the perimeter of the premises. That means that if it’s a college, the zone is measured from the external perimeter of the grounds outwards. It makes no difference what type of property you’re on; if it’s within that distance from the boundary then you’re in a DFZ. In addition, public swimming pools, video arcade facilities and school buses have a 300-foot perimeter, in which the possession of drugs is an “enhanced” offense.

Defining the Locations

This law gets confusing in the definition of the DFZs. In terms of the law, for example, a “playground,” is any outdoor facility that:

  • Is not on school premises
  • Is open to the public for recreational purposes,
  • Contains three or more sets of apparatus for children’s amusement.

One of the issues around this definition are that police actually have to count the apparatus, because a swing attached to a slide will most likely count only as one piece of equipment, not two. So if there are fewer than three individual pieces, it might be a playground (and therefore a DFZ) but it’s not considered a “source location.”

The Confusing Parts

It’s not only in terms of the location types that the law around DFZs is confusing. A few nice tidbits of information are:

  • Possession, delivery or manufacture of small quantities of controlled substances are commonly Class A misdemeanors if they take place outside of a DFZ. If within a DFZ, however, they escalate to a third-degree felony. This also affects the jurisdiction of the case.
  • A drug offense on the premises of a school of any sort is only a felony if it includes delivery or distribution, not for possession or manufacture.
    Swimming pools and video arcades are a DFZ but can only be considered a source location for low-level delivery charges. This excludes possession, manufacture or high delivery charges.

Possible Defenses

There are a number of defenses that can be used if you’re accused of a drug crime in a DFZ. For example, it’s essential for the law to determine the ownership of the land. A playground (with more than three pieces of equipment) located in an apartment complex has limited access for tenants, which makes it not open to the public and therefore not a DFZ.

If privately-owned premises on privately-owned land are used as a school, however, then they are a DFZ by reason of being a learning institution. As long as the school is registered, of course. Also, the designation of a source location only applies in this instance if there are minor children present on the privately-owned school premises at the time of the crime.


The penalties for drug-related crimes in a DFZ are greater than the same crimes committed outside the DFZ. Firstly, the sentences are higher, with a conviction for possession of more than one but less than four grams of cocaine in a DFZ carrying 7 to 10 years and a fine up to $20,000. If you have a prior DFZ conviction the judge can increase your sentence to a minimum of 30 years in prison. DFZ sentences can’t run concurrent with any other sentences, and defendants are not eligible for parole until a minimum of five years has been served.

If you’re charged with a drug crime in what appears to be a DFZ, the first thing you should do is consult with an attorney. There are so many ramifications that it’s highly likely an experienced Texas criminal defense lawyer will be able to identify useful defense arguments for your case, which could get you a much lower sentence–even if you are guilty.

*Image courtesy of Jack Wolf