United States: Weed And Worry — The Immigration Consequences Of Engaging In The Cannabis Trade

Last Updated: October 31 2019
Article by Angelo A. Paparelli

The legal cannabis business is spreading like weeds. As several states and foreign countries have enacted laws decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana for medicinal or recreational use, a fresh rush of reefer madness has overtaken the business world. Investments in the cannabis industry are now available as ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds), and marijuana startups are proliferating at every step along the supply chain.

Not to be a downer, but this blogger worries that many imbibers of high and heady times may not realize that engaging in, and even facilitating, the marijuana trade carries risks – not the least of which are the chockablock provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) that portend bad trips aplenty.

Should you be worried about legal marijuana's adverse consequences under federal immigration law?

Yes, of course, if you are a noncitizen:

  • residing anywhere in the U.S. who uses, shares (whether you do or don't Bogart that joint), or sells marijuana in any form, whether psychoactive THC or only non-psychoactive CBD
  • residing abroad who used Mary Jane before it was legal in your home country, and you want to visit the U.S., work here, or apply for a green card
  • residing abroad hoping to get an E-2 or EB-5 investor visa who wants to invest in and start a business even only remotely involved in the weed trade (other than agricultural hemp [per new § 297A Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946, 7 U.S.C. 1621 et seq., Note: 7 U.S.C. 1639o, enacted through § 10113 of the 2018 Farm Bill])
  • residing anywhere who invests in cannabis businesses through purchases of mutual funds or individual stocks (whether publicly listed or privately sold)
  • married to a U.S. citizen who is petitioning for your "green card" status (lawful permanent residency) while owning a duplex (where you live together on one floor and s/he sells legal cannabis as a dispensary operator on the other)
  • practicing law in the U.S. on a green card or work visa whose clients want to engage in business as growers/producers, distributors/sellers, manufacturers/processors of legal cannabis

Yes, also be worried if you engage in business in the U.S. (whether or not in states where weed is legal for medical or recreational use), your business employs noncitizens, and, say, you:

  • are a property owner who rents land to a cannabis farmer or retail space to a marijuana dispensary
  • are a financial services company and your top employee, a U.S. green card holder, recommends investments in cannabis-industry businesses or approves a loan to start up or expand such a firm
  • are a cannabis grower or dispensary operator with a separate wholly-owned IT services subsidiary that manages your web site promoting marijuana sales
  • want to employ a research scientist to investigate potential products or services, or delivery systems, involving any form of cannabis (except agricultural hemp).

Why not just blow off your worries?

These fearsome consequences are not necessarily certain or inevitable, but the underlying fear is reasonable because cannabis (at least for now) remains a Schedule I Controlled Substance under federal law, even if only used for medical purposes. Thus, the Justice Department cares not a whit that weed is legal in California, Canada and countless other jurisdictions. Just ask Jesus Gabriel Navarro Guadarrama. On June 16, 2019 the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA [an arm of the DOJ]) determined that his two convictions under Florida law for possession of 20 grams of marijuana warranted deportation (even though a single conviction for possessing 30 grams or less for personal use might have saved him from banishment).

Simply put, even though many states (foreign and domestic) see things otherwise, the Feds continue to enforce marijuana penalties under the immigration laws, be it MJ use, possession, or "trafficking." Indeed, under INA § 212(a)(2)(C)(i) the trafficking bar is so broad that it can trigger the deportation or refusal of admission of any noncitizen whom an immigration or consular officer merely has "reason to believe" has been "a knowing aider, abettor, assister, conspirator, or colluder with others in the illicit trafficking [of marijuana] . . . or endeavored to do so."

Immigration precedent decisions of the BIA, such as Matter of Davis, have defined illicit trafficking expansively:

Black's Law Dictionary defines "traffic" as "[commerce]; trade; sale or exchange of merchandise, bills, money, and the like. The passing of goods or commodities from one person to another for an equivalent in goods or money." Black's Law Dictionary, 1340 (5th ed. 1979). "Trafficking" is in turn defined as: "Trading or dealing in certain goods and commonly used in connection with illegal narcotic sales." Id. Essential to the term in this sense is its business or merchant nature, the trading or dealing of goods, although only a minimal degree of involvement may be sufficient under the precedents of this Board to characterize an activity as "trafficking" or a participant as a "trafficker." . . .

"Illicit" is defined as "not permitted or allowed; prohibited; unlawful; as an illicit trade." Black's Law Dictionary, supra, at 673. Giving effect to this plain meaning, the use of "illicit" in . . . the Immigration and Nationality Act simply refers to the illegality of the trafficking activity. (Emphasis added.)

What this means in the real world is that visas for working, visiting, studying, or immigrating here, for persons using or possessing cannabis (see Vol. 9 of the State Department's Foreign Affairs Manual [at 9 FAM 302.4-2(B)(1) and (2)]) or merely "proliferating" the cannabis trade are verboten, and that even lawful permanent residents and the U.S. businesses that employ them can readily run afoul of the INA's cannabis prohibitions and penalties.

How so? Consider these recent agency actions.

  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has announced, for example, that a "Canadian citizen working in or facilitating the proliferation of the legal marijuana industry in Canada, coming to the U.S. for reasons unrelated to the marijuana industry will generally be admissible to the U.S. however, if a traveler is found to be coming to the U.S. for reason related to the marijuana industry, they may be deemed inadmissible." (Emphasis added.)
  • Similarly, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has declared that "certain conduct involving marijuana . . . continues to constitute a conditional bar to [establishing good moral character] for naturalization eligibility, even where such activity is not a criminal offense under state law."

According to USCIS, conduct making citizenship a pipe dream (for at least five years, possibly longer) extends to a variety of federal offenses which "may include, but [are] not limited to, possession, manufacture or production, or distribution or dispensing of marijuana . . . 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." (Emphasis added; footnotes omitted.)

USCIS adds that a cannabis-related conviction is not required. Merely making a binding admission to having participated, partaken or proliferated a forbidden act associated with the drug is enough to cause the loss of eligibility to naturalize. Worse yet, the agency adds that "even if an applicant [for naturalization] does not have a conviction or make a valid admission to a marijuana-related offense, he or she may be unable to meet the burden of proof to show that he or she has not committed such an offense."

U.S. immigration laws make no distinction between psychoactive THC, medicinal CBD, or hemp, as this excerpt from the State Department's Foreign Affairs Manual, 9 FAM 302.4-2(B)(1) and (2) (although arguably the species known as indica may be distinguishable from sativa) confirms:

For the purpose of these Notes, the term marijuana includes any of the various parts or products of the plant Cannabis Sativa L., such as bhang, ganga, charras, Indian hemp, dagga, hashish, and cannabis resin.

Just say no versus just say maybe (until Congress, the Administration or the Courts act)

These agency pronouncements arise against a flurry of legislative, executive and judicial actions which offer hope that the problem of conflicting MJ legality might eventually be ameliorated in one way or another:

  • H.R. 1595 – The Secure And Fair Enforcement Banking Act, which passed in the House, would prohibit federal banking regulators from penalizing banks that finance legitimate marijuana-related businesses, while its counterpart in the Senate, S. 1200, The SAFE Banking Act, awaits a vote.
  • H.R. 4390 and S. 2021 The Removing Marijuana from Deportable Offenses Act, not yet up for a vote, which, though laudable, would only provide that "any offenses involving the use, possession, or distribution of marijuana shall not be considered as grounds of inadmissibility." In other words, these bills would not in express terms retroactively reverse the consequences for persons already ordered deported from the U.S. like the hapless Jesus Gabriel Navarro Guadarrama and innumerable others.
  • The Food and Drug Administration recently reopened the comment period on the potential rescheduling of marijuana so that it might no longer be classed as a Schedule I drug under international treaties.
  • The Drug Enforcement Administration announced in August that it is accelerating its review of applications by marijuana suppliers to provide the drug for research purposes (noting that in the last two years the agency has increased the number of registered researchers "by more than 40 percent from 384 in January 2017 to 542 in January, 2019." The DEA added, however, that "[before] making decisions on these pending applications, DEA intends to propose new regulations that will govern the marijuana growers program for scientific and medical research . . . [and] help ensure DEA can evaluate the applications under the applicable legal standard and conform the program to relevant laws."
  • Meantime, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on May 30 directed the DEA to reconsider its classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug.

Inevitably, in this blogger's view, the problem of adverse immigration consequences over cannabis will at some point blow away. Until federal immigration authorities stop throwing the baby out with the bong water, however, countless noncitizens and the U.S. families and businesses who interact with them will fear the prospect of uncertain and uneven enforcement of America's outdated immigration laws.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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