Cannabis and Immigration: Marijuana Activity a Conditional Bar to Obtaining U.S. Citizenship

immigration cannabis marijuanaOn April 19, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it would formally update its Policy Manual regarding how cannabis-related activity–even when it took place in states that have legalized the medical and recreational use of marijuana–would impact naturalization.

The Policy Manual is self-defined by the USCIS as its centralized online repository for immigration policies. It serves as a guide for immigration officers to follow when adjudicating applications and petitions.

Prohibited cannabis-related activity, as we explained previously, includes possession, prior use, as well as employment or investment in cannabis industry, each of which is deemed a violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). In all, it’s a very broad array of exclusionary activity.

Lifetime bans on Canadians have increased public awareness that foreign nationals can be deemed inadmissible and refused entry into the U.S. based on their involvement in cannabis-related activity. It is not well-known, however, that such prohibitions may also affect lawful permanent residents of the U.S. (i.e. green card holders). The USCIS’s announcement on Friday, clarifying that cannabis-related activity (including activity that is legal under state law) creates a conditional bar on one’s eligibility to naturalize, is aimed at clarifying this misconception.

Naturalization is the process by which a green card holder can become a U.S. citizen upon meeting five core requirements: (1) be a green card holder for the statutory period (at least five years at the time of filing the naturalization application, or at least three years if the green card holder has been married to the same U.S. citizen spouse during that entire time); (2) be physically present in the U.S. for at least half of the applicable statutory period; (3) be continuously domiciled in the U.S. during the applicable statutory period; (4) possess “good moral character” (GMC); and, (5) demonstrate a willingness to actively support the Constitution of the U.S.

Of those prerequisites, the focus of this post is the GMC requirement. In order to demonstrate GMC, the applicant must demonstrate a lack of involvement in a series of unlawful activities ranging from felonies to a failure to register for Selective Service.

Murder and other felonies result in a permanent bar to naturalization, meaning that the applicant will forever fail the GMC requirement regardless of how far back in the past the criminal conduct took place.

Apart from felonies, the Policy Manual, in Part F, Chapter 5, includes a laundry list of criminal activities that result in a conditional bar to citizenship, meaning that such conduct within the statutory period will prevent an applicant from naturalizing. Cannabis-related activity is among those crimes.

It is important to note that the Policy Manual specifies that an applicant may be conditionally-barred from establishing GMC not just because of “a conviction” for a cannabis-related offense, but also for:

  • An “admission” to having committed such an offense;
  • An “admission to committing acts that constitute the essential elements of a violation of any controlled substance law”;
  • A “conviction or admission that the applicant has been a trafficker in a controlled substance, or benefited financially from a spouse or parent’s trafficking”; and even
  • “Possession of controlled substance related paraphernalia”.

Somewhere, Jeff Sessions is smiling. Failure to establish GMC for any of the above could not only result in a denial of the naturalization application, but also jeopardize the applicant’s ability to preserve the green card, and result in removal from the U.S.

The recent update to the Policy Manual also spells out the conditional bar to GMC applies even where the offense may have taken place in a state that has laws permitting “medical” or “recreational” use of marijuana because of its classification as a ‘Schedule I’ drug under the CSA. The updated Policy Manual language is crystal clear:

Such an offense under federal law may include, but is not limited to, possession, manufacture or production, or distribution or dispensing of marijuana. For example, possession of marijuana for recreational or medical purposes or employment in the marijuana industry may constitute conduct that violates federal controlled substance laws. Depending on the specific facts of the case, these activities, whether established by a conviction or an admission by the applicant, may preclude a finding of GMC for the applicant during the statutory period….Note that even if an applicant does not have a conviction or make a valid admission to a marijuana-related offense, he or she may be unable to meet the burden of proof to show that he or she has not committed such an offense.

A conditional bar is difficult to overcome because it requires the applicant to show “extenuating circumstance” about why a particular unlawful act was committed. Such extenuating circumstances must have occurred before or at the time the unlawful act was committed. The Policy Manual explicitly instructs officers to disregard any evidence of an applicant’s subsequent reform, or to evaluate any positive factors about the applicant’s character when making a decision on a naturalization application.

With its April 19, 2019 Policy Manual update, the USCIS has shown its zealous commitment to interpreting marijuana use under the 1971 federal CSA in spite of the tide of marijuana legalization that has swept nearly half the states in our union. It’s unfortunate, but green card holders and other affected parties should be warned.