John Kelly’s tenure as a reasonable person with sound and sane views on marijuana lasted less than 48 hours.
On Sunday, the Homeland Security chief won fans in drug-reform circles with his statement that cannabis is “not a factor” in America’s drug war—not with opiate overdoses killing more people than auto accidents across the country, and certainly not with a multibillion-dollar, legal domestic cannabis industry—and then went a step further, declaring on NBC’s Meet the Press that “the solution is not arresting a lot of users.”
“The solution,” he said, “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.”
Fewer arrests, more rehabilitation, cutting demand—wow! All this from a former Marine general and Trump appointee. Maybe the world isn’t so bad after all.
Wait! It still is.
What “goodwill” Kelly built lasted until Tuesday, when—perhaps after receiving a “briefing” from the likes of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a reminder of the administration’s heretofore hard line on the subject—he declared marijuana a “potentially dangerous gateway drug,” and promised to use cannabis as a reason to deport undocumented immigrants.
“Let me be clear about marijuana. It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs,” he said during a speech at George Washington University, as the New York Daily News reported. “Its use and possession is against federal law and until that law is changed by the United States Congress, we at DHS along with the rest of the federal government are sworn to uphold all the laws that are on the books.”
“ICE will continue to use marijuana possession, distribution and convictions as essential elements as they build their deportation removal apprehension packages for targeted operations against illegal aliens living in the United States,” he added. “They have done this in the past, are doing it today and will do it in the future.”
“If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws,” Kelly said, gaining so much steam that he apparently forgot that bills in Congress, introduced to legalize cannabis, are never called by (Republican) committee chairs to a hearing. “Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”
In theory (and in practice), any small-time “crime,” including cannabis use or possession, can lead to contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and subsequent deportation for someone living in the United States without the proper paperwork.
However, immigration experts believe that under Trump, Customs and Border Patrol agents are relying more heavily on incongruity between state and federal marijuana laws as a trap to trip up potential immigrants or visa-holders attempting to enter the country.
As Leafly News reported, immigration attorneys say there’s been a marked increase in border officials asking potential entrants if they’ve ever used marijuana—and then, when they answer in the affirmative, permanently denying them entry into the country.
According to Kelly, the “morale” of employees at Homeland Security, an umbrella agency that includes Border Patrol, Customs and the Transportation Security Administration, has been at a low ebb—because of Barack Obama. Under Obama, there was less of an emphasis on deportation. Now, under Trump—elected president after declaring Mexicans “rapists” on his first day as a candidate—border and customs officials have been seizing potential entrants’ phones and searching their social media and email accounts for bare mentions of marijuana, advocates say.
A constant bête noire for Trump and company is the concept of “sanctuary cities,” settlements where local police are barred from cooperating with immigration authorities when handling undocumented immigrants in custody. It bears mentioning that Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, the homeless man and undocumented immigrant charged with the 2015 murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco, was in custody for a decades-old marijuana charge. (The other crimes committed by the “repeat felon”? Entering the United States, time and time again.)
If Kelly was serious about building goodwill, he might assure otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants that they can call authorities without fear of removal from their homes and families as a reward. Instead, he’s behaving as if the country is at war with itself. Which, from most accounts, it is.