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What are the Immigration Ramifications of Working in the Cannabis/Marijuana Industry?

By January 20, 2020March 31st, 2021Immigration, News
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Our clients often have the following questions:  Can I Work for a Cannabis/Marijuana Company in the United States? Can I be Denied Citizenship Due to Working in the Cannabis/Marijuana Industry? How Will Working in the Cannabis Industry for a Cannabis/Marijuana Company Affect my Immigration Status?

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued policy guidance in their Policy Manual to clarify that a violation of federal controlled substance law, including a violation involving  marijuana, remains a conditional bar to establishing good moral character (GMC) for naturalization even where that conduct would not be an offense under state law.

One key point of the policy guidance is that a violation is generally a bar to establishing good moral character (GMC) which is required to obtain Citizenship.  This is the case even if the conduct is legal under State law or under applicable foreign law.

Although 10 states broadly allow its use and sale, federal law still bans marijuana and immigration authorities say they are bound to follow that prohibition when reviewing citizenship applications and any violation of federal controlled substances laws, even for marijuana, remains a conditional bar to establishing GMC. This essentially means that any foreign national who admits to or is caught smoking marijuana in the United States, even in a legal state or medical state where their doctor has approved their use, will not be able to establish their GMC to become a citizen of the United States.

Beyond targeting those caught possessing cannabis, the memo provides 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. This means that immigrants who work in the cannabis industry can be denied citizenship, even if they are doing so in states where it is legal.

In early April, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock (D) sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr asking him to clarify and adjust policy that threatens permanent residents’ path to citizenship if they have worked in the marijuana industry.

Following up in May, three Congressmen wrote to Attorney General Barr and the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin K. McAleenan explicitly stating that the guidance provides “no cogent basis for the agency’s apparent conclusion that lawful employment in a state-licensed industry could be treated as a negative factor in establishing good moral character and places a negative burden upon the individuals against a non-existent discretionary element.”

In response, USCIS upheld the policy guidance and that Federal law does not provide an exception to the above-described requirements for good moral character where the controlled substance is decriminalized under state law. Marijuana, among other drugs, remains a Schedule I controlled substance, regardless of its treatment under state laws.

This issue has come to the attention of mainstream media lately when attorneys representing two legal immigrants from Colorado, and Denver officials, accused the Trump administration of quietly targeting immigrants seeking to work in the expanding retail cannabis field. Immigration advocates have stated that they have seen others denied citizenship based on past or ongoing work in cannabis-related jobs. Oswaldo Barrientos, one of those denied citizenship, said he began working in the industry in 2014. He had been brought to the U.S. from El Salvador as an infant and was granted a green card when he was 13. He is fluent in English and has no criminal history, pays taxes and graduated high school. During an interview in November, the immigration official focused on Barrientos’ job with a state-licensed company that grows marijuana. Subsequently, he received a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denying him because of his job.

The full USCIS Policy Manual can be found here (see section C. Controlled Substance Violations, Part 2: Conditional GMC Bar Applies Regardless of State Law Decriminalizing Marijuana).

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