Last year, the state of Colorado made history by allowing anyone over the age of 21 to buy marijuana for recreational use. At that time, cannabis or marijuana was available in a number of states for purely medicinal purposes. States and municipalities all over the U.S. are changing their laws to decriminialize the recreational use of the drug, highlighting a shift in the public perception of marijuana use.
This shift is considered positive by many. Decriminalizing marijuana is seen as a way to cut down on costs associated with low-level drug abuses. Shortly after Colorado legalized marijuana, Washington State also went ahead and decriminalized the use of pot in small amounts. Fast forward a year and over 14 states have taken considerable steps to decriminalize the use of cannabis. Most recently in Florida, commissioners in Miami-Dade passed an ordinance that would have police fine people with small amounts of the substance instead of sending them to jail.
Under the local ordinance, police can issue a $100 fine for possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana instead of charging or arresting the individual under current criminal state statutes. Miami Beach also passed a similar ordinance. The Police Department believes the new ordinance will save upwards of $40,000 in total costs usually associated with arresting individuals for marijuana possession.
The thought of leniency and cost savings seems to be spreading across the nation, with many states either legalizing or decriminalizing the recreational use of marijuana in small quantities. Many states, however, still ban the drug and it remains illegal under the country-wide federal law as well. This means that immigrants could still face serious consequences for even minor drug-related offences.
Buying, selling, possessing or using marijuana is strictly illegal under federal law. State laws are completely restricted to the borders of individual states. Carrying a drug such as marijuana across the border from one state to another could be very risky, especially if the drug is being taken from a state that allows the use of marijuana to one that does not. A majority of the states still treat the use of marijuana as an illegal and punishable activity. In fact, trace amounts in an ashtray or residue in the glove compartment could also lead to serious immigration charges if discovered by the authorities.
Now, the laws concerning marijuana use may have been modified somewhat in some of the states, but that has not changed immigration law by any means. The law still states that anyone who is in possession of a controlled substance (which includes marijuana, as we’ve discussed before) will be permanently inadmissible to the country. This means that immigrants found to have any amount of the substance can be refused admission to the United States and cannot get their visa stamped at immigration when they arrive at the airport in the future. The accused may also have trouble getting permission to change their immigration status from one to another.
What this means, in context, is that immigrants residing in Miami are subject to the same immigration laws regardless of the local ordinances that apply in the county of Miami-Dade. So being found with a minor amount of marijuana may mean paying a small fine of $100, but the individual may still face serious immigration consequences.
Immigrants who have been charged with fines instead of a crime may have to go to court without a court-appointed legal counsel. This means that states have an incentive to lower the rates of penalties for low-level drug charges since this could help save money by not having to provide defense attorneys. Many noncitizens, without a legal counsel to help them understand, may not realize that admitting guilt to a low-level marijuana possession offence may result in a minor fine but could get them deported from the country right away.
As the country moves towards a more liberalized view of marijuana and its recreational use, the law has disproportionately inflicted harsh consequences to non-citizens and immigrants. Although the drug is being liberalized and decriminalized in 20 states including Columbia district, and banks can now officially lend money to viable businesses that want to sell or deal in marijuana in states where it is legal, immigrants still face the full brunt of the law when it comes to recreational use.