Should permanent residents work in legal marijuana businesses?

Erick Widman

Cannabis is a big business. According to Fortune Magazine, the cannabis industry grew to over $10 billion in 2018 and is set to grow even larger in 2019. Like any big business, the cannabis trade employs a lot of people and in 2018 more than 250,000 people worked in the US cannabis industry.

Many people who work in the cannabis industry happen to be permanent residents. One would think this is perfectly normal. After all, permanent residents are authorized to work in the US and jobs in the cannabis industry are similar to any other positions in research or retail. They pay their taxes like anyone else. In February 2019 alone, marijuana retailers paid about ten million dollars in taxes just to Oregon’s Department of Revenue. Across the country, these figures are far higher. These taxes are used to fund schools, police, and other important services.

There’s just one catch: although cannabis is legal in more than thirty states (and even several US territories, like Guam), it is not federally legal.

This poses an issue for permanent residents who hope to become US citizens. On the one hand, they’re upholding their end of the bargain by working and paying taxes. On the other hand, they’re engaged in work that is illegal in the eyes of the federal government. USCIS is a federal agency, which means that to break a federal law is to do wrong in the eyes of the immigration system.

Consequently, many permanent residents employed in the cannabis industry are denied citizenship on the grounds that they lack “good moral character.” (Here’s a link to the blog post where we discuss what that means.)

In short, although marijuana is legal in several states, aspiring citizens who work in the industry may run into issues when they try to naturalize.

On April 3, 2019, Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver, Colorado, sent an open letter to Attorney General William Barr asking for guidance to “clarify and adjust policies that are negatively impacting the legal immigration status” of people working in the legal marijuana industry.

Mayor Hancock went on to say he “believes hardworking and law-abiding immigrants should be allowed to participate in the legal cannabis industry without fear that such participation will disqualify them for lawful residency in the United States or prevent the opportunity to obtain permanent citizenship. We respectfully request that the U.S. Department of Justice uphold [states’] rights by respecting our voters and providing guidance to all DOJ employees clearly indicating that legal immigrants shall not be penalized for working in the legitimate cannabis industry.”

Consult with an immigration attorney if you have any questions or concerns about how working in the cannabis industry could affect your immigration status. Our number is (503) 427-8243.

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