Quickly-evolving marijuana laws are making many Americans optimistic that legalization is on the horizon. Just across the border, the legal use of recreational marijuana in Canada may be authorized later this year. Even so, a foreign national’s chances of staying in the states could go up in flames after a marijuana-related offense. Similarly, a foreign national may be denied entry into the U.S. for marijuana use or marijuana-related offenses.
The gradual legalization of marijuana in the U.S. is creating a false sense of security for noncitizens, who might be under the impression that using marijuana in accordance with state law is harmless. Don’t be fooled: although more states are jumping on the bandwagon of decriminalizing marijuana – marijuana is still illegal under federal law and for immigration purposes federal law is all that matters. Violating federal marijuana laws has serious implications for foreign nationals, affecting admissibility to the U.S. and the ability to apply for naturalization just to name a few. Notably, a noncitizen who admits to an immigration official that they possessed marijuana can be found inadmissible, denied entry to the U.S., or have their application for lawful status or even citizenship denied. Depending on the circumstances, admitting to marijuana possession, can make an LPR deportable – even if permitted under state law and/or the individual was never convicted of a crime.
As of January 2018, the use of medical marijuana is legal in 29 states as well as the District of Columbia. Recreational use has been legalized in the District Columbia and nine states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. While these state laws legalizing marijuana provide valuable benefits, they have proven to be a trap for unsuspecting immigrants. For example, foreign nationals living in one of these states may readily admit to immigration officials that they have used or possessed marijuana under the assumption that it is safe to do so.
According to a report by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) (as well as our experience), in some states including Washington State “ICE, CIS and CBP agents are aggressively asking noncitizens if they ever have possessed marijuana, in an attempt to hold people in admissible.” Accordingly, before crossing the border and potentially being interviewed by CBP, it is imperative that noncitizens are aware that immigration law treats any marijuana-related activity as a crime, with harsh penalties, even if it is permitted under state law.
Understanding Federal Marijuana Laws
Possessing, giving away, selling, cultivating, importing or exporting marijuana are all considered federal offenses. Working in the marijuana industry – even if it’s a state-licensed operation – counts as drug trafficking. Offenses are applicable to both recreational and medical marijuana because there are no exceptions under federal law for medical or other use. (A medical marijuana card is not a “get out of jail free” card.)
Using or being under the influence of marijuana, as well as possessing paraphernalia, are not federal offenses. Even so, committing one of the aforementioned transgressions will cause problems for noncitizens trying to cross the border. Notably, noncitizens who admit to using recreational or medical marijuana in accordance to state law can be found inadmissible to the U.S. under immigration law.
Consequences of Marijuana for Noncitizens
Potential consequences of marijuana for noncitizens include inadmissibility, removability and ineligibility for naturalization. Specifically:
- A criminal conviction for a state or federal marijuana offense can make a noncitizen both deportable and inadmissible. (For reference deportability refers to a noncitizen being removable from the U.S. whereas inadmissibility refers to a noncitizen being ineligible to enter the U.S.)
- Admitting to the commission of a state or federal marijuana offense can render a noncitizen inadmissible to the U.S. even without a conviction. The state laws legalizing marijuana have led to noncitizens mistakenly believing that it is okay to admit to marijuana use or possession when questioned by immigration officials causing irreparable harm to their ability to freely enter the U.S.
- Noncitizens may be found inadmissible to the U.S. if immigration officials have “reason to believe” the individual participated in drug trafficking – this can include working legally in the marijuana industry. A noncitizen may also be found inadmissible if within the last five years, he or she has benefited from such trafficking by an inadmissible spouse or parent.
- Admitting to the use of marijuana – even without a conviction – may render a noncitizen inadmissible or deportable for being an addict or abuser pursuant to U.S. immigration law.
- Committing a marijuana-related offense or admitting to marijuana use may result in a U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) being temporarily or permanently ineligible for naturalization. Specifically, an applicant must establish “good moral character” in order to become a citizen and committing a marijuana-related offense does not constitute “good moral character.” Inadmissibility resulting from an offense will count against an LPR. In some cases, it may bar an LPR from applying naturalization for a specified period of time or indefinitely.
As long as federal marijuana laws reign supreme, foreign nationals must remain vigilant and exercise extreme caution with marijuana including disclosing marijuana use – even if permissible under state law – at ports of entry, before USCIS in applications or interviews, to consular officials, at consular visa medical appointments or in removal proceedings.
Some practical advice for noncitizens and marijuana:
- Simply put: stay away from marijuana if you are not a U.S. citizen.
- Any photos or text related to marijuana need to be removed from your phone and social media accounts.
- Do not carry or display any materials that refer to marijuana (for example, a bumper sticker or a T-shirt) when traveling to the U.S.
- If you have ever used marijuana or worked in the industry do not depart the U.S. or apply for U.S. immigration status or naturalization without first speaking with an experienced immigration attorney.
- Before obtaining a medical marijuana card speak with an experienced immigration attorney.
- If you have a medical marijuana card, do not have it on you while traveling to the U.S.
- This should be a given, but should be emphasized: don’t bring marijuana with you when traveling to the U.S.
- Don’t discuss any conduct involving marijuana with immigration, border or law enforcement authorities. (The only exception is if your immigration attorney has advised that this is safe.)
Generally speaking, those who have possessed, used, or worked in the marijuana industry should not travel outside of the United States. This applies to anyone who is in the U.S. and is not a citizen – permanent residents included. Departing the U.S. and subsequently returning can put the noncitizen in a compromising position if a CBP officer questions them about marijuana. If questioned, the best option is to decline to answer, then contact an attorney.
If you need legal advice regarding marijuana and its effect on your immigration status, contact us at Serotte Reich: 716-854-7525 or www.srwborderlawyers.com/contact to schedule a consulation.