California, US

Apr 23 2019

USCIS Reminds Foreign Nationals that Marijuana Violations May Prevent Eligibility for Naturalization

United States

At a glance

Despite legalization in several U.S. states and foreign countries, the possession, use, sale, distribution and production of marijuana remain illegal under U.S. federal law and could render a foreign national unable to demonstrate “good moral character,” a key requirement of naturalization to U.S. citizenship.

The issue

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has issued internal policy guidance reminding its adjudicators that, despite decriminalization of the possession, use, sale, distribution and production of marijuana by several U.S. states and foreign countries, these activities remain illegal under U.S. federal law and can prevent naturalization applicants from establishing the good moral character (GMC) required by law to become a U.S. citizen. This includes the use of medical marijuana.

The agency guidance does not reflect a change to U.S. naturalization law or its interpretation, but does highlight the risks of controlled substance use, even use that might be permissible under state law, as a potential bar to becoming a U.S. citizen.   


To qualify for naturalization, an applicant must show that he or she has been a person of good moral character, generally during the five-year period immediately preceding his or her application and up to taking the U.S. Oath of Allegiance (a three-year period in some cases). Conduct outside the five-year period can also impact a GMC finding, but U.S. regulations explicitly state that during the GMC statutory period, a person will be found to lack GMC if he or she has violated any federal, state, or foreign law relating to a controlled substance (provided the violation was not de minimis as defined by statute). Despite recent changes in some U.S. states that legalize marijuana within those jurisdictions, U.S. federal law still classifies marijuana as an illegal controlled substance.

What it means for foreign nationals

USCIS’s internal guidance does not change the legal requirements for naturalization. The guidance does, however, signal the Department of Homeland Security’s continued attention to the interaction between federal controlled substance law and recent state (and in some cases, foreign) marijuana legalization laws in the context of U.S. immigration and naturalization. 

Foreign nationals on a path to naturalization should consult with counsel if they have questions regarding the intersection between naturalization and marijuana legalization.

This alert is for informational purposes only. If you have any questions, please contact the immigration professional with whom you work at Fragomen.