When Minnesota Legalizes Marijuana, Immigrants Must Be Wary!

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As Minnesota legalizes marijuana, immigrants must be cautious

In light of the fact that the Minnesota legislature is considering legalizing cannabis, following the lead of 21 states and the District of Columbia, I strongly urge them to take into account protections for non-citizen immigrants (not just undocumented Minnesotans).

Many people don’t realize that even if some states are decriminalizing cannabis (in part to make amends for the racist failings of the War on Drugs), federal law will still consider it to be a Schedule 1 substance. Federal law still prohibits the use, distribution, sale, cultivation, import, and export of marijuana. The rights of non-citizen immigrants are affected by this categorization.

Noncitizen immigrants in states where cannabis use is legal may incorrectly believe they have the same rights to use the drug as locals. Since cannabis is legal, many people seem to think that I should be able to buy it, grow it, use it for recreational purposes, etc. Nevertheless, the repercussions could be catastrophic for those who are not U.S. citizens.

If your U.S. spouse is sponsoring you for permanent residency (also known as a green card), but you are living in Minnesota without proper documentation, you will likely need to travel back home to apply. There is a mandatory health checkup once you leave the United States.

The consular official conducting the interview and evaluating the evidence may decide not to grant your green card if you lie to the doctor about having smoked a few cigarettes due to stress. However, returning to the United States will be a chaotic ordeal.

However, medical marijuana is not exempt from federal immigration law.

The immigration repercussions for non-citizens accused of marijuana possession can be severe, including deportation.

Some of the bills up for debate in Minnesota would expunge criminal records, but under immigration law, that doesn’t necessarily work out the way people hope it will.

Even scarier is the fact that a non-citizen need not be formally charged with marijuana possession for the effects to be felt. If you want to become a U.S. citizen, for instance, you’ll need to describe your financial situation and employment history for the past several years. If you have any involvement with the cannabis industry, such as working at a dispensary or owning a weed farm, or even if you just acknowledge having used (federally prohibited) narcotics, you may be denied citizenship or other immigration privileges.

The federal government has issued warnings to anybody working in the cannabis market who is not an American citizen. Information from a 2019 warning:

  • Violation of federal controlled substance law, including for marijuana, established by a conviction or admission, is generally a bar to establishing Good Moral Character for naturalization even where the conduct would not be a violation of state law.
  • 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 is not unlawful under applicable state or foreign laws.

After cannabis is legal in Minnesota, immigration officials will be able to inquire about locals’ behavior around the drug. While Grand Marais is located on Minnesota’s western border, I have encountered CBP officers there.

The United States has ICE and USCIS offices, which deal with immigration issues. According to a report by the Immigrant Legal Resources Center (ILRC) in 2021, ICE/USCIS/CBP agents in Washington—where marijuana is legal—aggressively questioned noncitizens about possession of marijuana in an attempt to find them inadmissible (aka potentially deportable).

This is the advice ILRC gives noncitizens:

  • Stay away from marijuana until you are a U.S. citizen.
  • If you truly need medical marijuana, get a legal consult.
  • Do not carry marijuana, a medical marijuana card, or marijuana stickers, t-shirts, etc. Remove any text or photos relating to marijuana from your social media and phone.
  • If you have used marijuana or worked in the industry, get a legal consult before leaving the United States or applying for naturalization or immigration status.
  • Never discuss conduct involving marijuana with immigration, border, consular or law enforcement authorities — unless your immigration attorney has advised that this is safe.

Campaigns to warn immigrants of similar dangers are being developed in other states. (This isn’t a criticism of the government alone. We, as a community, need to keep ourselves educated and make sure everyone else is, too.

To effectively address the racist legacy of the War on Drugs without increasing risks for immigrants, Minnesota’s legalization statute should adopt best practices to protect them.

After practicing immigration law in California, I’m relieved to be back in my home state of Minnesota, where cannabis use will soon be permitted to complement my newfound freedom. If the government ever decides to legalize marijuana, I hope it’s me before it. One or the other, or both simultaneously. Ideally, yes.

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