Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a 2020 presidential candidate, introduced legislation in the Senate on Thursday that would end the practice of denying citizenship to and deporting immigrants over marijuana offenses.
Under current law, more than 34,000 immigrants were deported for cannabis possession between 2007 and 2012, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
In April, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memo clarifying that using marijuana or engaging in cannabis-related activities—including working at a state-licensed dispensary or cultivation operation—makes immigrants ineligible for citizenship because it means that they do not have “good moral character.”
Booker’s new bill, called the Remove Marijuana from Deportable Offenses Act, would make it so that marijuana use, possession and distribution are no longer grounds for inadmissibility or deportation under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Despite the growing number of states moving to legalize marijuana for recreational or medical use, it remains federally prohibited. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has regularly used low-level cannabis and drug offenses to target immigrants for deportation, Booker’s office said in a press release.
“This Administration’s efforts to use marijuana possession as a tool for deportation is disgraceful and misguided. Limited law enforcement resources should not be wasted on deporting people for something two of the last three presidents have admitted to doing,” Booker said. “This legislation will remove another one of ICE’s weapons that have been deployed to execute this Administration’s hardline immigration policy.”
The legislation would also make it so that anyone previously denied a visa to enter the U.S. as a result of marijuana would be able to reapply, and further specifies that any immigrant who was deported for cannabis could be readmitted and have their visa reissued.
Groups of House and Senate lawmakers have sent letters in recent weeks urging the Trump administration to rescind the policy that counts marijuana as a strike against immigrants’ “good moral character.”
“Thousands of families, including those with U.S. citizen spouses and children, have been permanently destroyed by deportation of a family member based on conviction of a minor offense involving use of marijuana,” Katherine Brady, senior staff attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said in an email.
“Furthermore, the Trump Administration is making it a national priority to penalize conduct with marijuana that is legally permitted under state law. Immigrants who work in the legitimate cannabis industry, from farmworkers to office workers, and who pay federal and state income taxes for their work are facing severe penalties for being ‘drug traffickers,'” she said. “So are their minor children. Even people who use medical marijuana in their own homes, in accord with state law, are being penalized. They are being denied naturalization because they lack ‘good moral character,’ and in some cases are deported. Senator Booker’s bill would reverse many of these injustices.”
In a related development, the House of Representatives approved a bill earlier this month to create a path to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. as children. While criminal convictions can count against so-called DREAMers under the legislation, it includes a carve-out specifically noting that low-level cannabis offenses, or engaging in state-legal marijuana activities such as working in the regulated marijuana industry, would not jeopardize their eligibility.
Among current presidential contenders, Booker has been one of the most consistent supporters of marijuana and drug policy reform. He previously filed legislation titled the Marijuana Justice Act that would deschedule cannabis and withhold funding from states with racially discriminatory prohibition enforcement.
At Wednesday’s presidential debate, he spoke about his opposition to private prisons and the criminalization of addiction.
Last week, Booker unveiled a plan to commute the sentences of 17,000 people serving time in federal prisons for drug offenses. More than half of those affected by the move, which he pledged to initiate on the first day of his presidency, are serving time for cannabis convictions.
In other congressional cannabis news, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) filed legislation on Thursday that would legalize interstate marijuana sales and shipments.