Immigrants who use marijuana or who work in the cannabis industry can be denied citizenship, even if they are doing so in states where it is legal, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Friday.
The guidance, issued — coincidentally or not — just before pot advocates’ national celebration of their 4/20 holiday, confirms what immigration and marijuana advocates have cautioned is a legal gray area that penalizes would-be citizens because they’ve broken a federal law.
Although recreational marijuana use is legal in 10 states and decriminalized in 14 more, it is still classified as an illegal substance federally.
“The policy guidance … clarifies that an applicant who is involved in certain marijuana-related activities may lack good moral character if found to have violated federal law, even if such activity has been decriminalized under applicable state laws,” the guidance states.
Earlier this month, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, a Democrat, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr asking him to clarify and adjust policy that threatens permanent residents’ path to citizenship if they have worked in the marijuana industry. Colorado was one of the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana use, in 2012. The expansion of marijuana use beyond prescribed medical purposes has cultivated a thriving retail cannabis industry in the state.
In his letter, Hancock wrote:
“This week, I met with two legal immigrants — one from Lithuania, another from El Salvador — who have lived here for more than two decades. They have graduated from our schools. They have paid their taxes. They are working to achieve the American dream and complying with the processes in place to become a part of our great society, but were denied naturalization solely because of their cannabis industry employment.
“Denver understands the need for federal laws and regulations regarding citizenship and immigration, but we are seeing the heartbreaking effects that those federal laws and regulations are having on our residents. However, under current federal policy, lawful, permanent residents like the Denver residents I have met with are being denied naturalization and may lose their legal status based on their lawful employment in the cannabis industry.”
The war on drugs has disproportionately hurt communities of color, and this is just another example of that, said Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. But Collins views this particular crackdown as more indicative of the Trump administration’s views on immigration than drug policy.
“Taking a step back, this has nothing to do with cannabis — this has to do with this administration never passing up an opportunity to prosecute immigrant communities,” Collins said. “They see cannabis as a ripe opportunity for persecuting these individuals.”
“The Trump administration has used the war on drugs since the beginning to go after migrant populations,” Collins added, pointing to President Donald Trump’s rationale that a border wall would keep drugs out of the country and his blaming of migrants for the opioid epidemic.
In an emailed statement, Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Jessica Collins said the agency is “required to adjudicate cases based on federal law. Individuals who commit federal controlled substance violations face potential immigration consequences under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which applies to all foreign nationals regardless of the state or jurisdiction in which they reside.”
During the Obama administration, the federal government eased up on enforcing federal laws against marijuana, allowing states to chart their own paths on the issue. In January 2018, Jeff Sessions, while he was attorney general, rescinded that policy, arguing that it was his job to enforce federal laws.
Immigration lawyers have worried about how the Trump-era drug policy would affect legal residents seeking citizenship. Kathy Brady, a senior staff lawyer with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, told the Associated Press that she advises people to avoid work in the marijuana industry until the federal law changes.
“Even if you have had a green card for 20 years, you had better not work in any aspect of this industry and you better not use marijuana,” Brady said.
In California, which starting licensing the sale and production of recreational marijuana last year, the state sent a notice in February warning noncitizens that they “may suffer negative immigration consequences” if they work with marijuana.
The Trump administration has now confirmed that is true.