Supporters celebrate as the Senate passes its version of the adult-use marijuana bill at the Minnesota State Capitol in April. Credit: Ben Hovland | MPR News

Recreational marijuana became legal in Minnesota for adults 21 and older on August 1, but Minnesotans without citizenship or immigration documentation still face risks.

People in Minnesota, the 23rd state to legalize cannabis, can possess 2 ounces or less of it. They also can have two pounds of cannabis at home and grow up to eight marijuana plants with some added regulations.

But possession of marijuana on public school grounds or behind the wheel of a vehicle is not allowed. Sellers without a license could also face fees or criminal charges depending on how much they might sell illegally. 

On top of these limits, marijuana legalization in Minnesota poses added complications for noncitizens. 

Sahan Journal spoke with Julia Decker, the policy director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, to talk about how immigrants can be impacted by new marijuana state laws.
“Let’s make sure people understand—nothing has changed in the immigration world if you’re not a citizen,” Decker said. 

“Let’s make sure people understand—nothing has changed in the immigration world if you’re not a citizen”

Julia Decker, policy director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota

The risks and consequences are complex, but here’s what to know about marijuana legalization if you are not a citizen.

What should immigrants know about marijuana legalization in Minnesota?

Decker says the most important thing immigrants should keep in mind is that marijuana is still a federally controlled substance. Even if a state legalizes it, immigration consequences can still exist for noncitizens. 

The biggest thing to remember here? Immigration law is federal law.

“It can get very confusing,” Decker said. “When we start talking about immigration consequences—whether you can get citizenship, whether you might be subject to deportation, whether you can get something like asylum—those are all things that the federal government and federal law deal with and control.”

What are the risks?

The risks aren’t so clear cut, but they would mostly appear in the equally confusing overlap of the criminal justice and immigration systems. Here’s one example of how the two systems impacted a young woman driving without a license in Coon Rapids.

When it comes to marijuana-related issues, Decker explained the biggest risk is facing deportation and ending up in removal proceedings. How you get to that point would depend on whether a federal immigration agent becomes involved, instead of a state law enforcement officer. Local law enforcement have the discretion to alert U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), if they book a person in a county jail, for example. Each Minnesota county has its own policy on that. 

If a person states facts about possessing or selling marijuana in any kind of legal case—even if they aren’t convicted—immigration agents can also use that information to determine further immigration consequences for an individual, Decker said.

For legal permanent residents, or green card holders, getting caught with more than the legal amount of cannabis, or illegally selling cannabis, could make you ineligible for citizenship. And any record of cannabis use or possession, even within Minnesota’s legal limits, can be used by federal authorities. Green card holders have the opportunity to apply for citizenship in the United States after five years of legal permanent residency.

Decker added that even if these small spots on your record don’t impact your citizenship eligibility, it can still make the road to citizenship longer and more difficult. You’ll likely have to get additional records to support your case depending on your situation. Immigration lawyers and pro bono providers like the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota can help a person navigate the process.

Who is affected?

While some immigrants in Minnesota are legal permanent residents, Decker said that all noncitizens—undocumented and documented—should be aware of the risks. 

“Every noncitizen should be aware of the fact that the state legalization does not change the federal situation,” Decker said. “If they’re not a citizen, they could still face some type of immigration consequence for any interaction with the marijuana market in Minnesota.”

What if you live in a mixed-status household? Should everyone in the household abstain from using or possessing marijuana?

While she can’t provide general legal advice here, Decker says that even if you are a citizen, using or possessing marijuana can get dicey if you live with people who are not. 

“Anytime we talk about mixed-status families, there are additional risks depending on different laws—specifically because of the way state laws and federal laws maybe don’t quite match up,” she said.

What about expungement? Can that help a person without citizenship?

Expungement is the process of sealing or removing a conviction from a person’s criminal and public record. Along with marijuana legalization, the state also promised to start expunging records of low-level marijuana offenses in August. These records can impact a person’s job and housing applications, for example.

There are an estimated 66,000 people eligible for automatic expungement, state law enforcement told MPR News. Some felony marijuana records could also be eligible for a review for expungement.

“Unfortunately, expungement is not a cure-all for noncitizens who may have these convictions in their background,” Decker said. “Trying to figure out the best way to do this for all Minnesotans as well as noncitizens who are living in Minnesota is very difficult. There’s not one easy solution.”

Decker explains that even if a conviction is cleared from a person’s record due to a state law, federal immigration authorities who are, for example, evaluating an asylum case or reviewing a person’s citizenship eligibility, may want to see the unsealed records. Once a record is expunged, it can actually be harder for an applicant in the immigration process to access those unsealed records.

Does the Immigrant Law Center have any outreach events going on about this? Or resources for people who want to learn more?

Legalization in Minnesota is still in its early stages, but Decker said the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota is hoping to ramp up educational opportunities for the community, attorneys, and advocates.

“Our biggest concern was, let’s make sure people understand nothing has changed in the immigration world if you’re not a citizen,” Decker said. “There’s certainly a space to do more detailed analysis and education and we are hoping to be able to spin that up as we get further into the legalization realm.”

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...