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State Marijuana Legalization Linked To Fewer Immigrant Deportations, Study Finds

States that legalize marijuana see a “moderate relative decrease” in immigrant deportation rates compared to states where the drug remains illegal, according to a new study, as well as a slight decrease in overall cannabis-related arrests.

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The Columbia University researchers behind the study, published in the journal BMC Public Health, said the findings show recreational cannabis laws (RCLs) could “help to mitigate some of the unintended immigration-related consequences of cannabis prohibition.”

“Arrest trends in both legalization and non-legalization states were relatively similar, and generally stable over the period,” authors said. “For the deportation outcome, trends suggested that the overall prevalence of deportations decreased between 2009 and 2020.”


“Our results suggest that the RCLs were associated with a moderate relative decrease in deportation levels, that was observed relatively consistently across multiple model specifications. Findings also suggested potential relative decreases in immigration arrest levels; however for almost all specifications, associated confidence intervals were wide and included the null. Together these finding support the overall possibility that RCLs may help to mitigate some of the unintended immigration-related consequences of cannabis prohibition.”

Researchers didn’t reach any specific conclusion about the seeming connection between state-level legalization and decreased deportations. But it is the case that all 11 sanctuary states for immigrants, where it is generally the policy to discourage reporting immigrants to federal authorities, are also states that have legalized cannabis for adult use.

Further, legalization broadly leads to decreased arrests for cannabis-related offenses, so it’s likely fewer immigrants would be caught up in marijuana criminalization in the first place, regardless of the potential referral to federal agencies.

The researchers did point to two “countervailing pathways” that they said are “relevant to anticipating the potential immigration implications of RCL adoption”:

“First, RCLs could lead to potential decreases in the overall number of cannabis-related arrests or convictions, and therefore cannabis-related immigration enforcement. A second possibility, however, is that state adoption of RCLs might lead more people who are non-citizens to reasonably but falsely assume that federal immigration status is unaffected by cannabis use permissible under state law—potentially leading to increases in immigration enforcement.”

In other words, state legalization could risk giving immigrants a false sense of security.

“Because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level,” the study says, “cannabis infractions, even for minor or civil offenses, and otherwise ‘legal’ cannabis-related conduct, can have severe repercussions for people who are not US citizens, including temporary or permanent residents, dreamers and those granted asylum.”

“Under federal policy, a conviction, charge, or admission of simple cannabis possession is considered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as sufficient grounds for status ineligibility, arrest, detention, or deportation, as is employment in the cannabis industry,” it says.

There have been efforts by members of Congress to address that issue. For example, in 2022, a House spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) included a section that would have prevented the agency from using any federal funding to deny admission to, or deport, immigrants who’ve used or possessed marijuana.

Similar language also advanced through the appropriations process in 2021, but it was not included in the final package following bicameral negotiations. Nor was the 2022 version.

Advocates have also pressured the Biden administration to extend presidential cannabis possession pardons to the immigrant community. But immigrants have not been included in either of the last two clemency rounds.

The new study says more research is needed to understand the interactions between cannabis and immigration policy.

“While our results are specific to immigration arrests and deportations, these findings add to a growing body of literature evaluating the social justice and health equity implications of cannabis law reforms including RCLs,” the study says. “Given significant overlap between drug and immigration enforcement, but relatively few studies on this topic, additional research is needed to examine other important dimensions of these intersecting issues.”

“Future research employing exposures more proximate to immigration enforcement, such as examination of cannabis arrest or conviction rates directly—and related mediation analyses—would also strengthen the evidence for a causal relationship between cannabis policies and immigration enforcement activities,” authors wrote. “Trends in immigration enforcement should also continue to be monitored as more states adopt RCLs and as additional follow-up time post-legalization is accumulated.”

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a person who currently admits to using cannabis—even in compliance with state law—is morally unfit for citizenship. The agency clarified that position in a 2019 memo, adding that employment in a state-legal marijuana market is another factor that could impact a person’s immigration status.

In June 2019, a coalition of 10 senators sent a letter to the head of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security calling for a rule change to permit people working in state-legal markets to gain citizenship.

The letter echoes points made in a separate message sent by a bipartisan group of 43 House members earlier that year. In that letter, the group called the USCIS guidance “fatally flawed, as it provides no cogent basis for the agency’s apparent conclusion that lawful employment in a state-licensed industry could be treated as a negative factor in establishing good moral character and places a negative burden upon the individuals against a non-existent discretionary element.”



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