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Home​NewsDrug Free Zone Established on H Street NE

Drug Free Zone Established on H Street NE

The first day of a drug free zone on H Street NE was a rainy one. The weather may have prevented gatherings in the newly-established area well into Thursday morning.

But Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) nonetheless provided insurance with an officer standing in front of a cruiser parked on the property outside District Mart (721 H St. NE) Wednesday morning. Enforcement began 8 a.m. on Wednesday, March 27.

As MPD gears up for a third round of Drug Free Zones, police established seven new zones –one for each Police District. Signs went up on Tuesday demarcating a 1,000 foot square centered on the intersection.

What is A Drug Free Zone?

District law provided for the creation of Drug Free Zones in 1996 but was repealed in 2014 (a 1989 version was declared unconstitutional).

The provision under the 2024 Secure DC Act allows Chief of Police Pamela Smith to declare any public area inside a square as big as 1,000 feet per side a drug free zone for up to five days, or 15 days per 30-day period. That means the square could go from Seventh to Tenth Streets and from just north of I Street south to G Street NE. Six transit stops for bus and streetcar are located within view of the corner.

Although the legislation as worded is intended to prohibit “a group of 2 or more within the perimeter of a drug free zone established pursuant to section 3 for the purpose of committing an offense under Title IV of the Controlled Substances Act,” it allows offers to determine the purpose of a person’s presence in a zone by, among other considerations, when “such person has no other apparent lawful reason for congregating in the drug free zone.” It is also a violation of the law not to obey an officer’s orders to disperse.

Critics have characterized similar legislation as anti-loitering law. Skeptics have argued that the provision makes it easier for police to harass Black and Brown people congregating in public space. For instance, Patrice Sulton of the DC Justice Lab has pointed out that the sale of drugs is already illegal; the new legislation could allow police to stop and search individuals in the areas, she told Alex Koma of Washington City Paper in February.

H Street Safety

The H Street corridor has a dedicated H Street Unit, with five officers to work the H Street corridor on bike, scooter, or patrol vehicle. “We are focusing on drug issues and quality of life crimes, in addition to longer term investigations into drug related activity,” First District Commander Colin Hall wrote in an email to a community list serv.

Why a drug-free zones, here? Indications for the designation include increased arrests for drugs, reports of dangerous crime or homicides over the previous six months, or “verifiable” information indicated drug sales.

Hall cited eight arrests as “a sample of what has been enforced in the last several days.” These included at least four charges of possession of a controlled substance. However, of five blocks provided for the eight arrests, one took place on area potentially included in the expected Drug Free Zone. In response for a request for the basis of the declaration, MPD Press referred the Hill Rag to the online list of criteria.

But police records shared daily with the community do show arrests for possession of illegal substances and assault in the area over the past month.

Request From Community

Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) said that he had spoken with First District Commander Colin Hall and that the declaration was in part based on a request from the community, emphasizing the role of area Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6A. (Commissioner for the area Mike Velasquez (6A02) did not respond to requests for comment).

“We have seen what appears to be persistent illegal drug sales taking place at Eighth and H Street,” Allen said.  He and the commissioners were aware that officers had made multiple arrests in the area for sales of street drugs such as PCP, one of a man reportedly carrying a scale.

H Street Main Street Executive Director Anwar Saleem said the organization also requested a Drug Free Zone in the area. He says they are a useful tool. “You can’t be having businesses and people afraid to come to an area,” he said. “You have to address the issues you face,” Saleem said.

Eighth and H Streets NE, south of intersection facing east.

But Saleem said many of the people he sees at the intersection were unhoused residents and those with mental health concerns, adding that he thought the zones should be accompanied by services that would address these needs. “The issues are not just outright criminal intent,” Saleem said.

Allen said in the original draft of the Secure DC bill, Council asked that Drug Free zones be accompanied by just that sort of service provision. Part of what he and DC Council want to see, he added, is an evaluation of how Drug Free Zones is working to assess how and if it is working and if there are unintended consequences. But it was cut from the final version, he said, because the MPD and the Mayor’s office objected to the provision. “MPD and the Mayor objected to it being in the bill outright because it would carry a cost they said they couldn’t cover and would delay MPD action,” Allen said.

“Not a single person wants to have illegal drug sales and anger-style behaviors, so everyone starts there,” Allen said. “But I think that understandably, some neighbors have concerns about [whether] this be equitably and fairly implemented,” Allen said, adding he and Commander Hall have discussed the matter and that Council will be monitoring the situation.

This is the third round of Drug-Free Zones since the Secure DC bill was passed by Council March 5, MPD said three stops were made in the first round but has not yet supplied data on the second.

The zones are in effect until 7:50 a.m. April 1, 2024.

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