John Lennon and Leon Wildes in front of Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in New York City. Between 1972 and 1976, Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, fought their deportation in a politically tinged case that reached the Second Circuit. (Courtesy of Wildes & Weinberg PC)
In 1972, a British man hired Leon Wildes of Wildes & Weinberg PC, a New York-based boutique firm, to represent him in a deportation case that centered on a cannabis offense. That man was John Lennon.
U.S. immigration authorities had denied Lennon a green card because of a conviction for cannabis possession that followed him from the United Kingdom, and had given him 60 days to leave the country.
Wildes, who had no idea who Lennon was when he met him, ended up winning the case after a yearslong legal battle that uncovered the selective prosecution of the Beatles musician and his wife, Yoko Ono, whom the Nixon administration considered politically dangerous because they opposed the war in Vietnam and were influential with voters.
But the case also gave worldwide visibility to an immigration policy that gave enormous weight to marijuana offenses — and still does.
“My dad brought this sore subject out in the Lennon case,” Michael Wildes, a managing partner at Wildes & Weinberg, which has many celebrity clients, told Law360. “To this day, we still get rock stars who have drug convictions calling our office on immigration consequences.”
Laws have changed since the Lennon case, Wildes said, but drug policy has remained unfavorable to immigrants. And in most cases, it is ordinary people, not rock stars, who bear the brunt of it. According to a report by Drug Policy Alliance, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement made over 67,000 arrests for nontraffic drug offenses in fiscal year 2019. After illegal entry, drug offenses were the most common cause of deportation, the report says.
Recreational cannabis use for adults is now legal in 19 states, and with legalization comes a host of social equity initiatives that seek to reverse some of the effects decades of marijuana prohibition have had, particularly on communities of color.
Published: July 12, 2021
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News