Immigrants Can Be Denied U.S. Citizenship for Working in Regulated Marijuana Industry

Last week the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued guidance indicating that working in the marijuana industry, or even just possessing cannabis, could be grounds to reject a citizenship application—regardless of whether it is done in a state where it is legal. This guidance also would apply to permanent residents or “green card” holders seeking citizenship. The policy guidance is set forth in the USCIS Policy Manual and seeks to clarify that 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 policy guidance also 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.

Reports by various news outlets indicate that some lawful immigrants have already been denied naturalization by USCIS because of their employment in the cannabis industry. According to USCIS, as long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the agency won’t grant special considerations to individuals whose marijuana activities may be decriminalized under state or local law. The position of USCIS is that “marijuana remains illegal under federal law as a Schedule I controlled substance regardless of any actions to decriminalize its possession, use, or sale at the state and local level, federal law does not recognize the decriminalization of marijuana for any purpose, even in places where state or local law does.”

As we know, the U.S. Customs & Border Patrol has prevented some Canadian citizens from entering the U.S. because of their involvement in the cannabis industry. It remains unclear how strict USCIS will be in enforcing the latest policy guidance on citizenship. For the time being, participation in the cannabis industry will continue to constitute a potential bar to a determination of good moral character for naturalization eligibility, even where such activity is not a criminal offense under state law.