State says drug-free law applies to city preschool

August 10, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

Anyone caught dealing drugs near a West North Avenue preschool can face added jail time without a change in state law, according to the Maryland Attorney General's Office.

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The advice came after the failure of a bill by Maryland Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, during the last legislative session.

Munson had wanted to qualify preschools for drug-free school zone designations.

The designation means stiffer sentences for drug dealers caught within 1,000 feet of elementary, middle and high schools.

Local prosecutors and law enforcement agencies thought the law didn't clearly spell out that preschools were included.

Therefore, no one charged with drug dealing in the high-crime area around the Martin Luther King Jr. Center had been prosecuted under the drug-free school zone statute.

On March 17, Hagerstown Police Lt. Margaret Kline testified before the Maryland General Assembly that an open-air drug market has been operating less than a block from the preschool.


Two days later, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee killed Munson's proposed legislation. Committee members said they were concerned it duplicated existing law.

Munson then asked the Attorney General's Office for advice.

In April, Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe said the zone could apply to Head Start programs like the one at the Martin Luther King Center. She cited court cases from other states to back up her position.

"It makes sense," said Carolyn W. Brooks, coordinator of the Maryland HotSpot Communities program in Washington County.

Brooks said she hopes the added penalties for drug dealing will be a deterrent in the HotSpot area.

A first offense for dealing in a drug-free zone 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.

A drug-free school zone sign has been outside the MLK center for several years, despite the lack of prosecution, she said.

Brooks would like to see more signs in the area to discourage drug dealers.

Rowe said charges can be filed even if there are no signs declaring the area a drug-free school zone. Prosecutors need only use maps to show the activity took place within 1,000 feet of a school.

Washington County State's Attorney Kenneth Long said to his knowledge no one has been charged with a drug-free school zone violation near the center since the advice was issued.

"We're going to proceed with these cases. Ultimately the courts are going to have to decide," Long said.

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