Cannabis and Immigration

Marijuana has become a confusing legal field throughout the United States. While marijuana is still illegal at the federal level under the Controlled Substances Act, a majority of states have legalized marijuana in some form, whether just for medical use or also for recreational use. The discrepancies in marijuana law may be even more confusing for immigrants. Immigration law is governed under federal law and is tied to other federal laws and regulations, including the Controlled Substances Act. This means that even if immigrants live in states where marijuana is legalized, they are still prohibited from possession and involvement with marijuana under federal law. The consequences for immigrants who are involved with marijuana in any way can be grave: immigrants may be deported, may be found inadmissible when re-entering the country, and lawful permanent residents may be temporarily barred from establishing good moral character for naturalization. Marijuana Involvement Can Lead to Deportation Under § 1227(a)(2)(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”), immigrants can be deported for a violation of the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”). This means that immigrants who violate the CSA by possessing, distributing, or trafficking marijuana are deportable. The INA provides one exception for a single possession conviction of 30 grams or less of marijuana for personal use. Possessing an amount of marijuana greater than 30 grams, any repeated possession charges, and any indications of sharing or distributing marijuana beyond personal use falls outside of these exceptions. Even within the exception, judges can look at additional circumstances surrounding the personal use and determine that the exception does not adequately apply in a case. So even if an immigrant falls squarely within the exception, a judge can decide by looking at the totality of the circumstances not to allow the exception. If an individual is deported, admission back into the United States can be extremely difficult and can be barred for several decades. Marijuana and Inadmissibility Immigrants can also be found inadmissible at the border for marijuana related activity. Even if an immigrant seeking admission confesses to marijuana possession or use without actually being convicted of an offense, he or she can be deemed inadmissible. Merely working in a marijuana related industry can also lead to inadmissibility as officials may find immigrants guilty of handling, distributing, and aiding and abetting the trafficking of marijuana. The exception for a single possession charge of 30 grams or less does not apply to inadmissibility, so even a small personal use charge is enough to deny admission. This means that if an individual is already in the United States and would fall under the deportation exception for personal use, if he or she leaves the country, he or she may be denied admission back into the United States.  Inadmissibility of immigrants for offenses related to controlled substances can be found under INA § 1182(a)(2)(A). Marijuana and Naturalization To be naturalized as a United States citizen, lawful permanent residents must show that they have established good moral character during a 5-year period of residence in the United States prior to their application for naturalization. Good moral character is tied to admissibility standards; if an individual is deemed to be inadmissible, they cannot establish good moral character. This means that if an individual is convicted of a marijuana related charge, not only will they be inadmissible, but they will also be temporarily barred from establishing good moral character for the preceding 5 years. Working in the cannabis industry is also often a bar to good moral character. If an individual is temporarily barred from establishing good moral character for a marijuana related offense or working in the cannabis industry, the good moral character period must restart after the offense. This means that lawful permanent residents must have 5 straight years immediately preceding their application for naturalization without any marijuana related involvement or offenses to establish good moral character required for naturalization. Because of the dire consequences any involvement with marijuana can have on immigrants’ ability to enter the United States, stay in the United States, and naturalize as citizens, immigration advocates and attorneys often advise immigrants to completely stay away from marijuana, even medicinal use, while they are noncitizens. Additionally, immigrants are often advised to refrain from talking about or admitting any involvement of marijuana to any authorities without first talking to an attorney.