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Drug-free zone laws enacted during the 1980’s “War on Drugs” were meant to discourage drug activity near schools and other places children frequent, and protect them from drug trafficking activity. It sounded like a good idea at the time, and in theory, few would argue against this premise.


In practice, however, drug-free zones aren’t necessarily effective deterrents. Instead, they often simply impose unreasonably harsh penalties, and include drug crimes completely unrelated to children.


In today’s post, we look at how drug-free zones work in the state of Colorado, and what you need to know about them if you’re facing charges.


Colorado Drug-Free Zones Defined


Perimeters designated as drug-free zones in Colorado cover larger areas than many other states. Here, the grounds of the following facilities plus any area within 1,000 feet of the property’s perimeter are covered under drug-free zone laws:


  • Public or private schools
  • Public parks or playgrounds
  • Public housing development projects
  • Vocational schools


These zones also include school vehicles engaged in transporting children, and private dwellings as well. In other words, if occupants of these dwellings are hit with drug possession charges, they’re subject to enhanced penalties, regardless of whether the defense involved a child.


“Colorado Special Offenders”


When charged with commission of drug crimes inside drug-free zones, you are designated a “Colorado Special Offender.” This means you, too, are subject to enhanced sentencing and penalties.




The enhancement most often applied in drug-free zone cases is elevating charges to Colorado Level 1 Drug Felony.


Conviction on a Level 1 includes a mandatory prison sentence of eight years (up to 32 years) in addition to three years’ mandatory parole. You could also face a fine of $5,000 minimum ($1 million max).


Aggravating Factors


Aggravating factors could make your situation even worse. If a defendant is subject to aggravated drug sentencing (for example, if the defendant is on parole for another felony), the mandatory minimum jail sentence increases to 12 years.


Despite Colorado’s progressive attitudes towards marijuana and potentially some psychedelics, our drug-free zone laws are some of the most aggressive in the country. They fill Colorado prisons with non-violent drug offenders, many of whom have no prior criminal record.


Colorado isn’t the only one tough on drug-free zone crimes, and many states have begun to talk reform. Hopefully our state will follow suit… eventually.


Are Talks of Reform for Colorado Drug-Free Zones on the Horizon?


We don’t know. What we do know is this: disparities have prompted many states to revisit drug-free zone laws, with reforms to sentencing severity and designation of drug-free zones.


While few people would argue the merits of protecting children from drug activity, as Colorado’s drug-free zone laws stand, huge portions of most urban areas are designated drug-free zones — even for drug crimes committed in the defendant’s own home.


Because of this, the laws don’t deter offenders from protected areas. Instead, there’s simply nowhere else to go. The result: enhanced sentencing is nearly inevitable in many urban areas.


Moreover, drug-free zones are disproportionately concentrated in low-income and minority neighborhoods. This means that these unreasonably enhanced sentences affect persons of color and from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.


Colorado Drug Crime Lawyer


That said, thus far there have been no such discussions of reform in Colorado. Fortunately, drug crime charges don’t equate to drug crime conviction. In fact, many cases are thrown out entirely. Your lawyer will arm you with the best possible defense strategy to help you in your case.



About the Author:


Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state.  She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.

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