Marijuana Could Disqualify Immigrants From US Citizenship

By Paul Gaita 04/26/19

Any association with marijuana could be considered an issue in establishing "good moral character," which is a requirement for citizenship.

Group of people participating in a US citizenship ceremony

Immigrants who are found to have any involvement with marijuana—from possession and distribution, to medical marijuana use, to working in a cannabis company—could bar immigrants from earning citizenship, even in states where marijuana is legal.

New guidelines issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services (USCIS) state that any violation of the Controlled Substances Act could be considered as an undermining factor in establishing "good moral character" (GMC), which is a requirement for citizenship.

Though medical marijuana is legal in 33 states and the District of Columbia, and recreational marijuana is legal for adults in 10 states and D.C., marijuana remains a Schedule I drug, and as such, remains prohibited by federal law.

The new guidelines (released on April 19) were issued as clarification for the USCIS Policy Manual about how an arrest for any involvement in marijuana-related activity could upend an immigrant's efforts towards citizenship.

USCIS stated in the memo that a "violation of federal controlled substance law, including for marijuana, established by a conviction or admission, is generally a bar to establishing GMC for naturalization even where the conduct would not be a violation of state law."

USCIS policy defines good moral character as behavior that "measures up to the standards of average citizens in which the applicant resides."

A naturalization officer would determine an applicant's GMC according to his or her record, statements provided during the application, and oral testimony from an interview.

Applicants for naturalization who are found to have violated the federal law through "marijuana-related activities" may be considered to lack GMC. Such activities include possession, distribution, cultivation or manufacture of marijuana, regardless of its legal status in a state.

As CBS News noted, even jobs associated with the cannabis industry or use of medical marijuana could be denoted as a violation.

"U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is required to adjudicate cases based on federal law," said USCIS spokesperson Jessica Collins to CBS News. "Individuals who commit federal controlled substance violations face potential immigration consequences under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which applies to all foreign nationals regardless of the state or jurisdiction in which they reside."

The exception to this policy is if the violation is a single offense for simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana. 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.