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Over the past several years, more and more U.S. states have legalized marijuana. Some only permit it for medical use, while other states have fully legalized recreational use.

If you’re fond of the herb, this probably sounds like good news to you. However, people who are not U.S. citizens need to be extremely cautious about their use of marijuana. Even working in the marijuana industry can be risky for non-citizens.

Due to the severe restrictions on marijuana use imposed by the federal law, and immigration law in particular, marijuana is never legal if you’re not a U.S. citizen.

At Louisiana immigration law firm Pelton + Balducci, we make sure our clients understand every aspect of the law so that they can build the secure life they want here in the U.S. That’s why we’ve put together this guide on marijuana laws for noncitizens.

State law vs. federal law

As of 2021, 36 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, with a doctor’s order, and 18 of those have legalized marjuana for recreational use. Another 13 states have decriminalized marijuana to some extent, generally limited to the mere possession of a threshold amount for personal use. 

Louisiana has decriminalized possession of up to 14 grams of marijuana for recreational use, but has not legalized it yet. Decriminalization in Louisiana means that you won’t go to jail for possession of up to 14 grams, but you could still get a citation and fine. (You can check the legal status of marijuana in your state here.) 

So if you live in a state that has legalized recreational marijuana, how can it be illegal for immigrants and noncitizens?

The explanation is that nearly all activities pertaining to marijuana are still illegal under federal law as marijuana remains a federally controlled substance. It is a federal offense to possess, give away, sell, cultivate, import or export marijuana.

Because the immigration system falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government, state laws passed to legalize marijuna do not apply to individuals subject to immigraiton laws. 

So if you’re not a U.S. citizen, marijuana can get you into trouble with the immigration laws regardless of your state of residence. Activities such as working in the marijuana industry, even as an agricultural worker, or admitting to a U.S. government official that you have experimented with marijuana at an immigration medical exam or interview can result in the denial of benefits applications.

Immigration consequences of using marijuana

Whether you’re a lawful permanent resident, an undocumented resident, or a resident of another country applying for a visa to come to the U.S., marijuana use has the potential to create barriers to your immigration process, or even lead to your removal from the United States.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Inadmissibility: If you so much as admit to ever trying marijuana to an immigration official (including a physician performing an immigration-related medical exam), you could be found “inadmissible” to the country, leading to your visa denial. Also, if government officials have “reason to believe” you have been involved in trafficking marijuana, you will also be inadmissible. 
  • A conviction relating to marijuana can make you deportable from or inadmissible to the United States (note there are some exceptions if an applicant possessed 30 grams or less of marijuana). A conviction can also bar you from demonstrating Good Moral Character (see below). Thus, it is essential to work with an immigration lawyer, in addition to criminal defense counsel, if you are arrested and charged with a marijuana offense.
  • Family-based and Employment-based immigration: Conduct related to marijuana use can also be used to ruin your chances for family and employment-based immigration. Again, any admission of marijuana use at the required medical exam or at the USCIS interview will likely result in at least a temporary denial.
  • Naturalization: The use of marijuana can be used to deny you naturalization on the basis that you lack “good moral character” during the statutory period during which good character must be demonstrated. “Good moral character” is defined by immigration law, and a conviction for a marijuana offense – or even certain admissions of acts involving marijuana – will result in a finding that you lack good moral character in the judgment of the immigration law. 
  • Travel abroad – Even a lawful permanent resident may be placing themselves in jeopardy if they have engaged in activities related to marijuana and they either make an admission on the record or are questioned about such activities upon return to the United States.

In states like Colorado and Washington, where recreational marijuana has been legal for a while, immigration authorities are specifically questioning people on their use of marijuana in an attempt to deny them immigration benefits such as naturalization, trapping unsuspecting applicants who believed they were engaged in a legal activity.

What about medical marijuana?

Using marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, is still illegal under federal law. However, federal funds can’t be used to prosecute someone for the medical use of marijuana.

That does not protect you from the immigration consequences listed above, though. Even if you have a legal prescription from your doctor, medical marijuana use can still lead to immigration problems pertaining to inadmissibility and prevent naturalization, among others.

Try talking to your doctor about alternatives to cannabis treatment.

What to do if you’re a noncitizen who’s used marijuana

If you are currently using marijuana, or have used marijuana in the past, you may be worried about what this will do to your immigration case.

Here are some steps to take if you are worried about your marijuana use:

  • Stop smoking and/or using edible marijuana: This is the best thing you can do for your immigration case, until you become a naturalized citizen.
  • Don’t admit your marijuana use: You don’t have to tell police or immigration authorities, including border and consular officers, about any conduct involving marijuana. Don’t lie, but you can always exercise your right to remain silent.
  • Delete any potential evidence of marijuana use: Now’s the time to take down those instagram photos of you smoking a joint with your friends. The same thing goes for stickers, shirts, tattoos, and even your medical marijuana card. Get rid of all evidence that could be used against you.
  • Talk to a lawyer: If you’re concerned about your history of marijuana use, or if immigration authorities have questioned you about your use of marijuana or employment in the industry, the best thing you can do is contact an immigration lawyer before applying for an immigration benefit or departing the country.
  • If you’ve been arrested or cited for an offense related to marijuana use: we will refer you to a criminal defense attorney immediately. It is essential to minimize the potential for immigration consequences of an offense by avoiding a conviction.

Contact a Louisiana immigration lawyer

Our team or dedicated immigration lawyers at Pelton + Balducci have experience with deportation defense, family- and employment-based immigration, and naturalization.

If you have any questions about your marijuana use and your immigration status, feel free to contact us to schedule a free and confidential consultation.

Contact us for a consultation

DISCLAIMER: Any information contained herein is solely for informational purposes. While it is important that you educate yourself, nothing herein should be construed as legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. For specific questions, we always urge you to contact a local attorney for advice pertaining to your specific legal needs.

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