Marijuana Pardons Affect Just a Sliver of Those Swept Up in the War on Drugs

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Kenault Lawrence, 38, immigrated legally to the United States when he was 10, settling in Front Royal, Va., and graduating from high school as an undefeated wrestling champion. Years after two Virginia misdemeanor convictions for possession with intent to distribute less than half an ounce of marijuana, Mr. Lawrence was detained by federal agents for more than a year and deported to Jamaica.

His first son was born months after he was detained in 2011, and he was deported in 2012, forcing him to spend almost a decade away from his wife, an American citizen, and his son.

Advocacy groups spent almost nine years working to get Mr. Lawrence returned to the United States. But after finally succeeding in coming home last year, he faces the possibility of being deported again if he cannot persuade an immigration court to permanently cancel his deportation. Since his charges included intent to distribute and were under state law, and because the president’s order did not address deportations, Mr. Biden’s pardon will not help.

“This is America,” Mr. Lawrence said, adding that he was thankful to be home but worried that his use of pot decades ago could send him away again. “People do smoke weed and you know, now it’s legal. Back then, we used to hide it.”

Mr. Biden’s pardons may have helped rally Democratic supporters to the polls in the midterm elections by serving as a kind of political down payment for those who wanted the president to go much further.

Some governors took notice: Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon, a Democrat, last week announced pardons for state charges of simple marijuana possession before 2016, when marijuana was legalized in Oregon. The move affects an estimated 45,000 people, the governor’s office said.

Other Democratic governors, including in Louisiana and Minnesota, do not have the authority to issue pardons for marijuana offenses; they must go through state boards instead.

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