In Illinois, starting January 1, 2020, the recreational use of marijuana becomes legal. Under Federal immigration laws, however, its use remains prohibited. Even though the Illinois law does not expressly provide relief for non-citizens, a relatively unmentioned provision provides a notable benefit to those non-citizens who have disqualifying marijuana convictions in their backgrounds. This short blog article will discuss, first, what the pitfalls are in seeking any benefit such as legal permanent residency or naturalization from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) in relation to use of marijuana and, second, how the new Illinois law opens the door to vacate all disqualifying marijuana convictions, whether for possession or delivery.

     Pertinent Federal laws regarding possession of Marijuana. Under federal law the possession of marijuana remains illegal. Under Title 21, Chapter 841, the federal statute simply provides as follows:

(a) Unlawful acts
Except as authorized by this subchapter, it shall be unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally—
(1) to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, a controlled substance;

(21 U.S.C. §841) (West, 2019). Marijuana, or “cannabis,” is considered a “controlled substance” under schedule I of the Act. 21 C.F.R. 1308.11(d)(23).

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”), possession of marijuana is a disqualifying offense for those who seek permanent residency as well as those who seek naturalization. For those seeking permanent residency, not only a conviction, but also any “admission” to using marijuana could result in a denial. Likewise, for those seeking naturalization, not only a conviction, but also any “admission” could result in being denied naturalization as a failure to have “good moral character” under the INA.

Legalization of Possession of Marijuana, New Illinois Law P.A. 101-27 (eff. 6-25-19). Illinois prosecutors do not make a distinction between those who are citizens and non-citizens and, therefore, it is unlikely that anyone, whether a citizen or not, will receive a “conviction” for possession of marijuana in Illinois so long as it is less than 30 grams for Illinois residents, and less than 15 grams for non-residents of Illinois. It is also worth noting that not all use of marijuana is legal: (a) it must not be smoked in public, (b) if transporting it in a vehicle, it must be inaccessible during transport, i.e., in the trunk, and in a sealed container, and (c) one cannot be under the influence while driving.

The problem for non-citizens is that for any arrest USCIS many times requests a copy of the police report even if there was no conviction. USCIS may require an explanation of what happened during the arrest, usually looking for any clues for whether any violence, drugs, or weapons were involved. If USCIS sees in the police report that marijuana was involved and, at the interview, the non-citizen admits to the USCIS officer having used marijuana, although never charged and convicted for it, it would be a basis to deny relief and, depending upon the circumstances, place the non-citizen into removal proceedings. Thus, it is advisable to retain counsel for any applications for permanent residency or naturalization when there is any arrest for marijuana, despite the recent change in Illinois law.

Time to Commence Post-Conviction Proceedings, P.A. 101-27. Under the new Illinois law, those with marijuana convictions for possession under Section 4 or Section 5 of the Cannabis Control Act, may seek to vacate their convictions, apparently regardless of the date of conviction. The law states very simply:

Any individual may file a motion to vacate and expunge a conviction for a misdemeanor or Class 4 felony violation of Section 4 or Section 5 of the Cannabis Control Act.

20 ILCS 2630/5.2(i)(3). P.A. 101-27. This provision not only allows for the vacature of possession convictions, but also convictions for delivery under Section 5 of the Cannabis Control Act. It is important for non-citizens to understand that mere expungement is insufficient under Federal immigration law – a complete vacature of the conviction, meeting the requirements under Board of Immigration Appeals case law is required to completely erase any conviction, including controlled substance convictions for marijuana possession and/or delivery. Despite the difficulty in meeting these requirements, the most difficult requirement we have encountered is that the person has allowed more than three (3) years to pass from the date of conviction, which subjects the petition to immediate dismissal in the criminal court. Now, however, the new Illinois legalization law has commenced the clock again for criminal judges to review and vacate these convictions. If you are a non-citizen who has a conviction for marijuana possession or delivery in your background, now is the time to discuss with counsel whether you may qualify to vacate the conviction and proceed to ask for either permanent residency or naturalization with USCIS. Depending upon your circumstances, you may have a very short time to do so, but in most cases it would be about 2 years, until the end of 2021.