Labeling an area a 'drug-free zone' may appear to be an empty gesture - or even worse, an admission that the neighborhood in question is anything but free from illegal substances.

But when the label is backed by new tools for law-enforcement officers, the creation of such zones can have a positive effect on neighborhoods experiencing high levels of drug activity.

The Gresham City Council has formally declared a portion of Rockwood a drug-free zone. With that designation, police officers can exclude alleged drug offenders from the area for 90 days. The city of Portland and other communities have tried this program and found it can succeed in reducing drug-related crimes in a specified section of town.

The approach isn't without critics. Some believe that drug-free zones simply drive criminal behavior into other neighborhoods, while others object on civil-liberty grounds.

Rockwood, however, has a drug-arrest rate that is 30 to 60 times higher than the rest of Gresham. With a problem of that magnitude, an extraordinary response is warranted.

As Gresham Police Chief Carla Piluso says, the situation needs to be controlled. After the program starts in mid-September, the city will have ample time to evaluate its effectiveness over the following 18 months before deciding whether to continue it. Although we doubt Rockwood or any community can truly be drug free, even a reduction in drug use and sales will make the effort worthwhile.

Not only is the city sending a strong message, but the majority of Rockwood's law-abiding citizens deserve a shot at a safer community.

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