Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly Proposes Fewer Pot Arrests in Drug War

by Esther Yu Hsi Lee –

More than 260,000 immigrants were deported for drug offenses in a five-year period.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Sunday that marijuana is not a “factor in the drug war” and that the solution is “not arresting a lot of users.”

The “War on Drugs”— one that has largely focused on the cross-border import of controlled substances such as marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine produced in Latin American countries and transported into the United States — has resulted in the arrests of hundreds of thousands of people for marijuana possession. In turn, these arrests have triggered severe immigration consequences because of the punitive legislation that grew out of this country’s “War on Drugs” policies.

During an appearance on Meet The Press with Chuck Todd, Kelly de-emphasized the role marijuana plays in the “drug war,” instead placing the blame on Mexican-produced methamphetamine and heroin, and cocaine produced in other Latin American countries.

“The solution is not arresting a lot of users,” Kelly said. “The solution is a comprehensive drug demand reduction program in the United States that involves every man and woman of goodwill. And then rehabilitation. And then law enforcement. And then getting at the poppy fields and the coca fields in the south.”

Kelly’s support for drug rehabilitation falls squarely in line with the “second chances” strategy the preceding Obama administration began leaning towards by providing fairer sentences for low-level drug offenders. Some states have since legalized marijuana use, but possession remains a federal offense. Thanks to a decades-old immigration law influenced by the U.S. government’s “War on Drugs” effort in the 1980s and 1990s, marijuana possession still means that non-citizens who serve out their prison sentences can head straight into federal immigration custody.

Contrary to Kelly’s proposed solution, which would help ease overcrowding in the criminal justice system, immigrants convicted of marijuana possession are rushed through the prison to deportation pipeline. Now a regular occurrence, the transfer of immigrants between the criminal justice system into the civil detention system has taken place since 1996 when the government expanded the types of violations that lead to mandatory immigration detention for those convicted of a drug-related “aggravated felony.”

As ThinkProgress previously reported, the government’s disproportionate response has resulted in immigrants being permanently barred from legalizing their status — or even worse consequences like deportation — regardless of the crime’s severity and how many years ago the offense occurred.

Between 2012 and 2013, marijuana possession was one of the top five most common offenses for which the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency asked local and state law enforcement departments to issue detainers, or holds against individuals, according to a Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) review. Deportations of non-citizens whose most serious conviction was for a drug offense totaled more than 260,000 between 2007 and 2012, the human rights advocacy group Human Rights Watch revealed.

It’s relatively easy for immigrants to find themselves in deportation proceedings because of pot possession. Anyone can be ticketed or arrested for smoking marijuana in federal parks, after which they would be transferred over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. Immigrants could also buy marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington and transport it to another state that has not eased its marijuana laws.

But even if Kelly is proposing fewer arrests for marijuana, his department is finding more reasons to criminalize immigrants for potential deportation proceedings. A recent Washington Post analysis found that the ICE agency arrested 21,362 immigrants between January through mid-March, among whom 5,441 immigrants with no criminal records were also arrested.

Kelly’s position on marijuana enforcement likely puts him in the minority opinion within the Trump administration. Both Department of Justice Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the president’s next likely drug czar Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), who will likely head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), are opponents of marijuana legalization and are supporters of a punitive approach to drug enforcement.

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress