Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly on Tuesday called marijuana “a potentially dangerous gateway drug,” and vowed that his agency, ICE, TSA and CBP would take a hard-line stance on the substance.
In a speech at a forum entitled “Home & Away: Threats to America and the Department of Homeland Security response,” hosted by George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., Kelly spoke of the effects of cocaine and heroin trafficking before turning to cannabis.
“Let me be clear about marijuana,” he said. “It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently used, leads to the use of harder drugs.”
He went on to say, “Its use and possession is against federal law, and until the law is changed by the United States Congress, we in DHS along with the rest of the federal government, are sworn to uphold all the laws that are on the books.”
Later in his speech, Kelly called out members of Congress who have questioned the techniques of DHS: “If lawmakers do not like the laws that we are charged to enforce, that we are sworn to enforce, then they should have the courage and the skill to change those laws. Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”
Kelly’s remarks on marijuana commerce diverged sharply from his reply Sunday in an interview on “Meet the Press” to host Chuck Todd’s question about whether legalizing marijuana would help or hurt efforts to control the flow of drugs into the United States.
“Yeah, marijuana is not a factor in the drug war,” Kelly said in that interview.
He continued: “It’s three things. Methamphetamine. Almost all produced in Mexico. Heroin. Virtually all produced in Mexico. And cocaine that comes up from further south.”
In contrast, in Tuesday’s speech Kelly said, “DHS personnel will continue to investigate marijuana’s illegal pathways along the network into the United States and its distribution within the homeland, and will arrest those involved in the drug trade according to federal law. CBP (Customs and Border Protection) professionals will continue to search for marijuana at sea, air and land ports of entry and when found, take similar and appropriate actions.”
In his listing of federal agencies that will enforce federal marijuana laws, Kelly mentioned the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is under the purvue of the Department of Homeland Security. Kelly refuted recent reports that TSA doesn’t care about marijuana possession. “When marijuana is found at aviation checkpoints and baggage screening, TSA personnel will also take appropriate action,” he said.
He also said Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will use marijuana possession as a factor in deportation cases. “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. They have done this in the past, are doing it today and will continue into the future.”
According to The Associated Press, critics have argued that the agency is too heavy-handed in enforcement operations, including arresting immigrants in the U.S. illegally whose only offense is being in the country without permission.
More than 21,000 immigrants in the U.S. illegally have been arrested since President Donald Trump took office in January, compared to about 16,000 people during the same time last year. About a quarter of those arrests were immigrants who had no criminal history, according to statistics from ICE obtained by the Associated Press.
In an apparent jab at the Obama administration, Kelly said, “My people have been discouraged from doing their jobs for nearly a decade, disabled by pointless bureaucracy and political meddling.”
Kelly also took the opportunity to warn of the potential dangers of cannabis to young people. “Science tells us (cannabis) is not only psychologically addictive, but can have profound negative impact on the still-developing minds of teens and people up into their mid-20s.”
Watch John Kelly’s full speech (thoughtfully cued up by The Cannabist to his remarks on marijuana):
The Associated Press contributed to this report.