In November of 2016, California voters approved Proposition 64, the “Adult Use of Marijuana Act.” Its passage will legalize recreational use of marijuana by people age 21 years and older. (Medical use of marijuana was already legal in the state.)
Parts of the new law went into effect immediately, most notably the provision allowing individuals to possess, use, and grow marijuana for personal and private use, subject to certain limitations as to amount and location.
Penalty reduction components also take effect immediately, allowing people currently in jail or prison or on parole or probation for a marijuana-related offense to petition to have their sentence reduced. Those who have been convicted and already served their time can ask that the court dismiss and seal the conviction.
Other parts of the new law will have to wait; most notably, people can purchase marijuana for personal use only from a state-licensed vendor, and the state of California has until January 1, 2018 to issue such licenses.
What does this mean for immigrants, both undocumented and documented (with lawful permanent residence, a nonimmigrant visa, or some other status)?
Not as much as you might expect. Marijuana is still on the federal list of illegal drugs, and conviction of a drug crime, or admission of drug use, still carries serious immigration consequences. It can—with some exceptions—make someone seeking a visa or green card “inadmissible,” and make someone who already has a green card or is legally in the U.S. “deportable.” For more information, see Can Green Card Holders Use Medical Marijuana in States Where It's Legal?
One issue of interest to the legal community is that many of the ways in which someone can violate this law—for example, by using marijuana in public, or in a car—will be punished as infractions, which is considered less serious than even a misdemeanor. Whether a marijuana “infraction” will be considered a drug “conviction,” given its low level of seriousness, remains an open question. The answer will have to wait for court decisions, but you can bet that federal authorities will argue that an infraction is a conviction with the same immigration consequences as any other conviction. (And bear in mind that admission of marijuana use is enough to make an immigrant deportable.)
The bottom line is to realize that if you are not a citizen of the U.S., you will have to abide by a different set of standards regarding marijuana purchase, growing, or use than your U.S. citizen friends do. Proceed carefully.
If you are a non-citizen and are already are serving time for a marijuana-related crime, however, be sure to get in touch with your attorney about sentence reduction—it could end up helping you with immigration matters. And if you have a marijuana conviction on your record, it’s definitely worth consulting with an immigration attorney about whether having it dismissed and sealed could help you.