Immigrants Being Left Out of Marijuana Decriminalization Reform

For Immediate Release
Sept. 10, 2020
Media Contacts:
Immigrant Legal Resource Center:
Immigrant Defense Project: José Chapa,
Drug Policy Alliance: Matt Sutton,

Immigrants Being Left Out of Marijuana Decriminalization Reform
Decriminalization Needs to Benefit All 

Many states, even conservative strongholds, have embraced marijuana reform as a commonsense step towards reversing the harms of the racialized drug war. Given the growing risk of deportation, advocates are supporting efforts to ensure that immigrants are not being left out of the conversation when these drug laws are changed.

For immigrant communities, marijuana-related convictions can result in disproportionate and devastating consequences. Almost all marijuana offenses cause mandatory imprisonment in an immigration prison. Marijuana offenses are consistently among the top ten most serious convictions of people deported. Taking into account immigration-related harms can ensure that efforts to change local and state laws to maximize the positive impacts of marijuana reforms.

To help advocates guide their drug reform work to include immigrants, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the Immigrant Defense Project, and the Drug Policy Alliance put together this resource guide: Protecting Immigrants when Decriminalizing or Legalizing Marijuana.

Though federal legal reforms are essential to completely eradicate the immigration consequences of marijuana-related conduct and convictions, state and local level reforms also have a critical role to play to help stop the arrest-to-deportation pipeline.

“For far too long we have watched immigrant families and communities of color ravaged and separated by drug criminalization.  We applaud all of the advocates engaging in decriminalization work but recognize that to truly repair the harm caused by decades of punitive enforcement, decriminalization efforts must take into account the unique needs of noncitizens,” said Rose Cahn, a Senior Staff Attorney at the ILRC.

“We cannot have any kind of meaningful drug policy reform without accounting for the harsh federal immigration consequences for non-citizens. Doing anything less renders the entire process meaningless and fails true reform at the hands of the most marginalized,” said Jeannette Zanipatin, California State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “While the rest of us face numerous consequences if arrested on a drug charge, the burden on non-citizens is infinitely more severe as they could literally be ripped from their homes and their families, in most cases barred from ever returning. By including measures that take immigration status into account when advocating for policy change, we can make meaningful reforms to the carceral and federal immigration system in a way that keeps families together instead of rendering them as collateral victims of the failed drug war. We are proud to stand side-by-side with our allies in the immigration reform movement to provide these guidelines for others within our collective advocacy spheres to follow.”

"As strides are being made to reverse racist drug laws, we must ensure that we do not leave immigrants behind,” said Marie Mark, Director of Legal Support and Resources at the Immigrant Defense Project. “Draconian immigration laws and practices can mean permanent exile for drug offenses, even when reforms are enacted. For example, a green card holder can still be deported based on a expunged conviction. We must work to ensure that the positive impacts of these reforms are shared across communities.”

Some suggestions from the resource include:

  • If penalties remain for marijuana offenses, make them civil, not criminal.
  • Create diversion programs that don’t require a guilty plea, or consider diversion before criminal charges are filed.
  • Include effective post-conviction relief based on legal error and access to records for immigrants.


About the Immigrant Legal Resource Center

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) is a national nonprofit that works with immigrants, community organizations, legal professionals, and policy makers to build a democratic society that values diversity and the rights of all people. Through community education programs, legal training & technical assistance, and policy development & advocacy, the ILRC’s mission is to protect and defend the fundamental rights of immigrant families and communities. Learn more at and follow us on Social Media on Twitter @the_ILRC and on Facebook and Instagram.

About Drug Policy Alliance

The Drug Policy Alliance envisions a just society in which the use and regulation of drugs are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights, in which people are no longer punished for what they put into their own bodies, and in which the fears, prejudices and punitive prohibitions of today are no more. Our mission is to advance those policies and attitudes that best reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition, and to promote the autonomy of individuals over their minds and bodies. Learn more at and follow us on Twitter @DrugPolicyOrg

About the Immigrant Defense Project

The Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) is a New York-based nonprofit that works to secure fairness and justice for immigrants in the racially-biased U.S. criminal and immigration systems. IDP fights to end the current era of unprecedented mass criminalization, detention and deportation through a multi-pronged strategy including advocacy, litigation, legal support, community partnerships, and strategic communications. Visit and follow @ImmDefense.