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Does Anyone Still Believe Marijuana Is a Gateway Drug?

US Homeland Security Head Vows to Target Undocumented Immigrants for Marijuana Use

Does anyone still believe that using marijuana makes people dangerous?

United States Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly certainly does. He declared in a speech yesterday that marijuana is a “dangerous gateway drug,” and that this makes marijuana offenses fair game for “targeted operations against illegal aliens.”

A marijuana plant is seen at a grow operation in Denver, Colorado December 31, 2013. © 2013 Reuters

Most Americans no longer believe that marijuana is dangerous. Fifty-seven percent of US adults say marijuana use should be legal. A decade ago, only 32 percent favored legalization. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of marijuana use.

The data supports what the public already believes: people arrested for marijuana rarely go on to commit violent crimes. When Human Rights Watch analyzed 15 years of data on people arrested for marijuana possession in New York City, we found 90 percent of the group had no subsequent felony convictions. Only 3.1 percent were subsequently convicted of a violent felony offense, and an additional 0.4 percent had two or more violent felony convictions.

When a marijuana offense is used as a reason to brand an immigrant as the kind of “criminal” who should be removed from the country as a threat to public safety, the consequences are devastating – to them and to their families. Ricardo F., a longtime green card holder, married to an American and with twin American daughters, found himself locked up and facing deportation in 2013 because of two marijuana possession convictions from more than 10 years earlier. Maria Sanchez, a grandmother and legal resident, came close to being deported because she grew marijuana to make a salve for her arthritic hands.

These are not isolated cases. Human Rights Watch found that from 2007 to 2012 – most of those years under the Obama administration – almost 266,000 were deported after a drug conviction. A quarter were for marijuana offenses. Roughly 34,000 people had marijuana possession as their most serious conviction.

Kelly is right about one thing – marijuana’s use and possession remains against federal law, until this is changed by Congress. It is time for Congress to change the law so that it reflects the data and respects the human rights of everyone in this country. Congress should legalize marijuana use and possession and eliminate it as grounds for deportation.

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