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Sometimes, instituted setbacks matter

The COVID-19 outbreak has introduced us to “social distancing,” the practice of maintaining several feet of space between you and the next person. It’s a recommendation rooted in science — droplets from sneezes and coughs that spread the coronavirus can travel 6-7 feet and farther; being within that distance, for an extended time, of someone known to have COVID-19 puts you at risk — and it makes sense.

Far less sensible are the arbitrary distances that lawmakers and policymakers come up with sometimes when crafting legislation and statutes. This year’s session of the Legislature provides a few examples, including those pertaining to medical marijuana.

House Bill 2779 by Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, would require that new dispensaries be at least 300 feet from a place of worship. The bill originally set the distance at 1,000 feet, but the change makes the setback consistent with that for retail liquor stores.

But why 300 feet, for dispensaries or package stores? Why not 350 feet? Or 250?

Dispensaries are required by law to be at least 1,000 feet from schools. Senate Bill 1245 by Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, would require they be at least the same distance from child care facilities.

Meantime, a bill by Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee (House Bill 3954), would clarify that the dispensaries’ existing 1,000-foot setback from schools should be measured from the nearest property line of the school to the front door of the dispensary. Getting that cleared up, apparently, is sure to reduce the likelihood of students being impacted by the businesses.

Following voter approval of medical marijuana in 2018, officials in Yukon approved ordinances banning marijuana businesses from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, churches, halfway houses or rehab centers. No doubt other municipalities have done something similar.

What’s so magical about 1,000 feet is anyone’s guess. But it’s long been a popular figure.

Two years ago, the owners of an adult novelty shop in Oklahoma City tussled with the city over a 1997 ordinance requiring such businesses to be more than 1,000 feet from schools, churches, playgrounds, libraries and residences. The store had opened within that distance of Northwest Classen High School.

A bill approved last week by the state Senate would make it a felony to possess or sell methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school.

State law mandates that sex offenders live no closer than 2,000 feet from schools and public parks. This restriction, not unique to Oklahoma, can make it more difficult for those offenders to find a place to live, adding to homelessness and consequently sometimes making it harder to track them.

These arbitrary buffer zones are intended to shield the public from potential trouble. But do they ultimately do much good? Unlike the guidance on avoiding the coronavirus germs, the answer is almost certainly “no.”

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›