Despite legalization, cannabis can still have legal impact for immigrants who aren’t U.S. citizens

A marijuana plant grows
In this June 17 file photo, marijuana plants grow at LifeLine Labs in Cottage Grove, Minn. On Aug. 1, Minnesota became the 23rd state in the country to legalize cannabis for recreational use. But cannabis continues to be a Schedule 1 drug under federal law, which could have consequences for non-U.S. citizens. 
Jim Mone | AP 2015

Cannabis is legal for adults 21 and older to use and possess in Minnesota. However, it is still illegal under federal law and legal experts say the distinction is important for immigrants who are not yet U.S. citizens. 

Julia Decker, policy director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said that's an important distinction for anyone who is not a U.S. citizen — even if they have a green card or other types of legal immigration status.

A professional portrait of a woman.
Julia Decker
Courtesy of University of Minnesota

“Cannabis is still a federally controlled substance, which means you could still face immigration consequences for any type of activity or possession of cannabis, even though it's legal in Minnesota under Minnesota state law,” Decker said. 

Decker says those consequences could include deportation. She said what makes this complex is that someone in Minnesota may possess a small amount of marijuana for personal use and not receive a criminal conviction under the new law.

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“However, there are some immigration applications which ask, ‘have you ever committed a criminal act for which you were not charged or convicted?’ And of course, those are applications under which somebody is swearing under penalty of perjury or under some sort of oath that they are telling the truth,” Decker said. 

She said even if someone didn't have a criminal case, there could be consequences. 

Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School Linus Chan says the system can also be a challenge to navigate for attorneys. 

A professional portrait of a man.
Linus Chan
Courtesy of University of Minnesota

“Often people, when they refer to whether something is a crime or not, they're not distinguishing between state law and federal law,” Chan said. “So it's very rare, for instance, that people talk in that way. And so it can be confusing for attorneys as well, and having to look at two different forms of law.” 

Chan also said one area where this is common is when looking at conviction expungements. He says someone convicted in state court could get an expungement, but it may not make a difference on the federal level. 

“And most people would think, well, if that's the way a state is dealing with whether or not you have a conviction, then why would it be any different for Congress or the federal government? But unfortunately, it is very different for the federal government, and especially in immigration law,” he said.

Chan said this is in part due to immigration laws that were based in the mid ‘90s or even prior and haven't changed much. 

Federal immigration law, he said, also makes no exceptions for medically prescribed marijuana or if someone worked at a dispensary.

However, both Chan and Decker say a marijuana conviction does not automatically prevent someone from naturalization or cause someone to be deported, but the risks are greater for those who don't have citizenship. 

Decker says while some distinctions in the law can be necessary, marijuana laws illustrate how arbitrary those distinctions can be. 

“I think as with many issues between, particularly for citizens and noncitizens, there are a lot of places where it does seem sort of fundamentally unfair that different folks are subject to really different standards of the laws.”

Decker says anyone currently navigating the immigration system should consult with an immigration lawyer. 

She says Minnesota is still in the early stages of marijuana legalization. Decker and many others in her field are keeping a close eye on how this will impact Minnesota's potential future citizens.