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Puffing Your Way Out of Admissibility - November 25, 2019

A new year is just around the corner which means that some new laws approved by state legislatures in 2019 will take effect on January 1, 2020. One of the most controversial laws is the legalization of marijuana.


Iowa legalized medical marijuana in 2017 through Iowa Code §124E, the Medical Cannabidiol Act. Iowa’s five medical marijuana dispensaries have been dispensing legal medical marijuana products since December 2018 to Iowans carrying a Medical Cannabidiol registration card. My colleague Katelynn McCollough has written about the Iowa laws in “CBD and Hemp Products” and “The New Balancing Act” if you would like to read more.


When it comes to marijuana, state laws and federal laws are not in harmony. Although individual states may legalize marijuana, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance in federal law 21 U.S.C. §812 and is illegal for individuals to possess, manufacture, or distribute.


What does this mean for immigrants?

Immigrants are held to a higher standard than United States citizens. An immigrant needs to prove that she is a person of “good moral character” to become a United States citizen or be determined admissible to the United States.

Automatic bars to good moral character include a violation of any law regarding controlled substances. The only exception is for simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana.


Even if marijuana use is not against state law, it remains a federal crime.  This is true despite the person’s state of residence - people in Colorado and other states that have legalized marijuana are still subject to federal prosecution for using or distributing it.


Admitting to marijuana use in an immigration application or interview is likely to lead to denial of the application and potentially to deportation even without a criminal charge or conviction. Immigration officers may glean information regarding marijuana use from a variety of sources including social media accounts.


Medical marijuana use is okay, right?

Wrong. According to the “Controlled Substances Act,” Schedule 1 substances have no accepted medical use. A Schedule 1 Controlled Substance offense “may include, but is not limited to possession, manufacture or production, or distribution or dispensing of marijuana.”  


In April 2019, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued policy guidance in its Policy Manual clarifying the controlled substance law regarding marijuana stating, “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.”


Wait...working in the marijuana industry could make me inadmissible?

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. If an immigrant works at a marijuana distribution center, this may be perceived as distribution and/or dispensing marijuana in violation of federal law. Even the intended immigrant’s spouse working in the marijuana industry could be interpreted as the immigrant benefitting from the distribution of marijuana, making the immigrant inadmissible to the United States.


What does all this mean?

To put it bluntly, unless you live in the fictional land of Honahlee, medical marijuana use, recreational marijuana use, or employment in the marijuana industry could lead to an immigrant’s inability to become a naturalized citizen, a lawful permanent resident, or to reenter the United States after international travel.



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