U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a policy guidance today clarifying that federal drug violations, including for marijuana, will generally prevent an individual from proving “good moral character” for purposes of naturalization, even where state law has decriminalized marijuana.

Key points:

  • Naturalization applicants must prove they have “good moral character” during the five years prior to filing their application (three years for marriage-based applicants). In assessing moral character, however, USCIS may consider conduct at any time before the five years and up to taking the oath of citizenship.
  • The majority of states have legalized recreational or medical marijuana, but federal law continues to classify it as a Schedule I controlled substance with high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.
  • USCIS has clarified that a federal controlled substance violation will generally bar a naturalization applicant from proving good moral character. A violation of federal drug laws may involve a conviction, but could also include admitting to having committed an offense, or admitting to acts that constitutes an offense. 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 and could be considered a basis for denying naturalization for failure to establish “good moral character”—even where the person was never arrested or charged with a crime and complied with state (but not federal) law.
  • Naturalization applicants who are involved in marijuana-related activities may be deemed to lack good moral character if found to have violated federal law, even if such activity is legal under state or foreign laws.

Background: Ten states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized recreational marijuana, and 33 states have legalized medical marijuana. Canada legalized marijuana in October.

In June 2017, the USCIS broadened the permanent residency application to include questions about controlled substance violations of state, federal or foreign laws at any time in the past.

BAL Analysis: The policy guidance is a reminder of that marijuana use carries serious immigration consequences. In addition to being a bar to naturalization, violation of a controlled substance law is considered grounds for inadmissibility, which can affect eligibility for other immigration benefits including a visa, green card, or change of immigration status. Applicants should seek legal counsel for information and advice in individual circumstances.

This alert has been provided by the BAL U.S. Practice group. For additional information, please contact berryapplemanleiden@bal.com.

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