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Bill would expand drug-free zone

March 18, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - An open-air drug market has been operating less than a block away from a Hagerstown preschool, Hagerstown City Police Lt. Margaret Kline told a Maryland General Assembly committee Wednesday.

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Yet the drug dealers near the Martin Luther King Center on West North Avenue aren't subject to the same stiff penalties as those who sell near other schools.

Preschools aren't included in the drug-free school zone laws that are designed to discourage drug dealing within 1,000 feet of elementary, middle and high schools.

"This has had the effect of allowing the drug dealers to operate with impunity in front of the preschool. This is completely unacceptable," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

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Munson is sponsoring a bill to add preschools to the law.

During a hearing Wednesday in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Munson said he learned of the problem from Carolyn W. Brooks, coordinator of the Maryland HotSpot Communities program in Washington County.

In 1995, the Washington County State's Attorney's Office tried to prosecute someone for dealing near the preschool, which is so close to drug activity that Kline has done surveillance from the building.

The effort failed because the law was not clear. Since then, police haven't bothered to make arrests under the statute, she said.

Police did make 263 drug arrests in the city last year, and many in the HotSpots area near the school, she said.

In 1997, there were two drug-related murders in the city and drug-related violence is on the rise, she said.

The statewide HotSpot initiative identifies high-crime areas such as downtown Hagerstown and finds ways to fight the problem with police and community involvement.

"Many groups are working to make this a better neighborhood," she said.

Expanding the drug-free school zone would be an important tool, she said.

Under the law, someone who deals drugs near a school faces extra prison time. A first offense carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. A second offense carries a minimum of five years and a maximum of 40 years.

If preschools are added to the law, boards of education would be able to post drug-free school zone signs at the Martin Luther King Center and 500 other preschools across the state.

Each sign costs about $50. If four signs are placed at each school, the total cost would be $100,000, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

Munson said he thinks the bill has a good chance of being approved by the committee.

It was supported by letters from Brooks, Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II and officials from Washington County Head Start, the Health Department, public housing and a church in the community.

"It's hard for me to see how this committee could not pass something this important to kids," Munson said.

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