Reed Smith Client Alerts

Non-U.S. citizens hoping to become naturalized U.S. citizens likely will want to steer clear of the cannabis industry in the United States, even in states where marijuana is legal. “[P]olicy guidance” issued recently by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) makes it clear “that violation of federal controlled substance law, including for marijuana, remains a conditional bar to establishing good moral character (GMC) for naturalization even where that conduct would not be an offense under state law.”

Authors: Zachary S. Roman


Numerous states have legalized, or decriminalized, the use of marijuana for medical purposes and, in some instances, adult-use purposes. As a result, the U.S. cannabis industry is growing quickly. Participation in that industry, however, could preclude an individual from becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. 

Under U.S. federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. See 21 C.F.R. § 1308.11(d)(23). As such, it is “unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally … to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense” marijuana. 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). Aiding and abetting someone who violates the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) also can give rise to criminal liability.

On April 19, 2019, USCIS, a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), issued a Policy Alert concerning “Controlled Substance-Related Activity and Good Moral Character Determinations.” The “Policy Highlights” include:

  • “Clarifies that violation of federal controlled substance law, including for marijuana, established by a conviction or admission, is generally a bar to establishing GMC 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 GMC if found to have violated federal law, even if such activity is not unlawful under applicable state or foreign laws.”

The alert also explains: “This guidance, contained in Volume 12 of the [USCIS] Policy Manual, is controlling and supersedes any prior guidance on this topic.”