Courts Deny Naturalization Petitions Due to Marijuana

We often write of the pernicious effects of the War on Drugs in the criminal law context as well as its harmful impacts on the hemp and (state) legal marijuana industries. This post turns to another issue resulting from federal illegality – the inability of a lawful permanent resident to petition for naturalization and and become a U.S. citizen. Courts deny naturalization petitions due to marijuana activities all the time. As we’ll discuss today, a federal court in the Eastern District of Washington recently did just that. This isn’t a tale of smuggling, or an illegal grow, or the distribution of marijuana across state lines. There’s none of that here.

What naturalization petitions are for, and who the plaintiff in this case is

In certain circumstances, a person with lawful permanent resident (“LPR”) status may “naturalize,” i.e., apply to become a citizen of this country upon completion of an interview, an oath of allegiance, and passing a test that perhaps 2 out of 3 persons born in the U.S. would fail. The plaintiff in this case is from El Salvador and moved to the United States in 2004, when she married her husband, a U.S. citizen. In 2007, she become a LPR, more commonly known as a green card holder. This authorized her to live in the United States, work without restriction, attend school, and join the armed forces.

In 2014, the petitioner and her husband opened a licensed marijuana dispensary

The State of Washington began its path to marijuana legalization in 2012. In 2014, the plaintiff and her husband opened a licensed marijuana dispensary.  Plaintiff worked at the store in several capacities including as a budtender and managing inventory and other employees. Assuming the plaintiff and her husband have kids, this is the proverbial “mom and pop shop” type of dispensary. After living and working in the U.S. for ten years, the plaintiff filed an application for naturalization in May 2017.

Court denies petition for naturalization because of  plaintiff’s involvement in a marijuana dispensary

One of the questions asked whether she had ever “sold or smuggled controlled substances, illegal drugs, or narcotics.” The plaintiff checked “no.” In another section of the form she explained that she and her husband were legally licensed by the State of Washington to sell marijuana.

In August 2017, an immigration officer interviewed the plaintiff and began reading the portion of the federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) that makes the cultivation, distribution, or possession of “any amount” of marijuana a criminal offense. The plaintiff was honest and forthright about her and her husband’s marijuana business and her role in it and her occasional use of edibles to help her sleep.

In July 2018, the USCIS denied her application for naturalization finding that her role as a co-owner of a marijuana dispensary made her an “illicit trafficker of a controlled substance.” This meant, per the USCIS, that plaintiff lacked the required “good moral character” needed to be qualified for U.S. citizenship. The plaintiff appealed within the immigration system and then filed an appeal with the federal district court.

In early February 2022, the district court agreed with USCIS and held that the USCIS properly denied plaintiff’s application for naturalization because of her involvement in a marijuana dispensary. The court’s ruling reads as reasonable given how the law and administrative guidance play out in these kinds situations. That a decision may be reasonable and justified under the law, however, does not mean it is a good decision.

What a waste of time and money

Frankly, what a waste of time and taxpayer money. For what? Nothing of value that I can see. The USCIS and the Court spent thousands of dollars to prevent a person whose sole “crime” was participating in her husband’s state-legal and licensed marijuana dispensary. She had no criminal history, no history of violence, nothing in the parade of horribles that might mean a lack of good character. Here is a person who petitioned to be a naturalized citizen, not someone USCIS and the courts ought to mechanically deny citizenship to. What a shame. I hope she appeals to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and I hope she wins.

For more on the intersection of immigration, naturalization petitions, and marijuana policy, see: