Police question why Belfast council tabled request for drug-free safe zones

Posted Oct. 19, 2012, at 7:17 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — When some Belfast city officials pushed back against the national War on Drugs this week, saying that creating drug-free safe zones in city parks would not solve the drug problem, some drug enforcement officers scratched their heads in confusion.

“I’ve heard of no communities that don’t want to do a safe zone,” said James Pease of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. “Where we have them in Maine, it’s working.”

The safe zone designation comes from Maine legislation passed in 2005 that increases penalties associated with dealing drugs within 1,000 feet of such a zone. If someone was caught dealing drugs in the designated area, a class C crime, for instance, would be bumped up to a class B crime, increasing the potential penalty by as much as five years.

Several city councilors said this week that the 1,000-foot extension of the safe zone around the parks in question was the problem, with one saying adamantly that he disagrees with how the War on Drugs operates.

Ultimately, the council tabled the safe zone question to decide it at a later meeting.

Councilor Mike Hurley, who has two nephews incarcerated in federal penitentiary due to drug-related convictions, said Friday that he is tough on crime — but that increasing penalties on dealers is not the way to go.

“From my perspective, those people have a problem, but they’re citizens of Belfast,” he said. “If all we’re doing is putting the same damn people in prison longer, and without any reduction in drug use, why are we doing that?”

But Pease said the intention behind creating safe zones is to keep drug dealers away from places frequented by children and teenagers, including schools and parks.

“The whole theory behind it is to keep kids safer,” he said. “The whole point of the law is to deter them from doing it where kids are hanging out. If you get caught doing it, you may pay a higher penalty.”

He said Rockland was one of the first communities in the state to adopt the safe zone designations, and he has heard from drug informants and dealers themselves that drug dealers are well aware of where the zones are located.

“They don’t want to deal in these safe zones, because they know the penalties are higher,” Pease said. “When you hear that from the people dealing drugs, you know it’s working.”

Hurley disagreed. He believes that increasing penalties on drug dealers caught 1,000 feet from parks and schools is an urban punishment, and that if the city has a problem with drug dealers, the answer should be to do more policing.

“I have no problem enforcing every law on the books,” he said. “If we have a problem in the parks, let’s put an extra cop there. I think the penalties are sufficient.”

He described the creation of safe zones as things that happen “automatically” because they make community and police leaders feel good.

“But have they had any effect?” Hurley asked. “We’ve been at this for 40 years. Our national rate of incarceration is insane. And we use more drugs.”

Chief Mike McFadden of the Belfast Police Department said he believes city councilors who did not support the safe zone designation might have thought the legislation was all-encompassing, affecting someone caught smoking marijuana as well as those caught dealing drugs. It does not, he said.

“I’m not sure the city council understood that,” McFadden said. “I fear they may have thought they’d throw a person in prison for five years for smoking a joint in a car next to the skate park. That’s not what would happen.”

The safe zones, he said, affect those people caught selling drugs.

While the chief said he knows the designations wouldn’t magically make drug usage in Belfast go away, it would help.

“Do I think it [would] have an impact on the amount of drug activity we see in this area? I do,” he said.

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