Since the federal government’s seemingly obsessed with marijuana, and noncitizens are under the jurisdiction of the federal government, immigrants cannot avail themselves of the benefits of legalization. Quite the opposite: Any type of conduct involving marijuana — even one that is legal under state law — can threaten immigrants’ future in the United States. Anyone who is not a citizen and consumes marijuana could face mandatory detention, deportation, denial of citizenship or adjustment of status.
There can be intense consequences for immigrants who partake in marijuana activities–during the last decade, at least, is that simple marijuana possession continues to be the number one drug offense that leads to deportation. Marijuana can threaten the future of an immigrant in the United States in (2) ways: (1) people with marijuana convictions can be deported or denied entry into the country; and (2) even without a conviction or arrest, a person can be denied entry into the country if he or she formally admits conducting involving marijuana.
Under immigration law, any person who is not a citizen is required to establish “good moral character” to obtain immigration benefits, such as a green card or citizenship. An immigrant who admits to even having smoked marijuana fails to meet that test under the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Asked under oath by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer about even remote instances of marijuana use, an applicant for a green card has no good choices: Admitting use will be used as a reason to deny residency. Lying to the officer can pose even more serious risks. Declining to answer the question will likely result in a denial of residency for failing to collaborate with the officer. Immigrants cannot establish good moral character if they admit to having consumed marijuana during the probationary period, which usually goes back five years from the moment they apply for a green card or visa.
Immigration authorities, clarified the policy in a memorandum issued in April 2019. “Violations of federal controlled substance law, including violations involving marijuana, are generally a bar to establishing good moral character for naturalization, even where that conduct would not be an offense under state law,” the memo says. The law allows for an exception: Admitting to a single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana does not bar an applicant from establishing good moral character, but even that type of admission is risky.
Legalization advocates have been working closely with their justice reform counterparts to come up with federal legislation that would end marijuana prohibition in the country. However, until Congress takes that step, immigrants will never be fully safe in consuming cannabis, or getting involved in its business.
In sum—let this be a warning to all noncitizens living in states where marijuana is legal that any activity linked to pot could be used by immigration authorities to deny them benefits or to initiate deportation proceedings.