Denver Officials “Condemn” DOJ Denial of Citizenship to Cannabis Industry Employees

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On Wednesday, Denver officials denounced the denial of U.S. citizenship to two lawful permanent residents employed in the cannabis industry, calling on the federal government to reconcile its immigration policies with laws at the state level.

Following a meeting with City Attorney Kristin Bronson, in which two Denver residents said that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services deemed them ineligible for naturalization due to their past or current employment in the cannabis industry, Mayor Michael Hancock issued a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

In it, the Mayor said that “hardworking and law-abiding immigrants should be allowed to participate in the legal cannabis industry without fear that such participation will disqualify them for lawful residency in the United States or prevent the opportunity to obtain permanent citizenship.” Hancock also asked the Department of Justice to “uphold Colorado’s states’ rights by respecting our voters and providing guidance to all DOJ employees clearly indicating that legal immigrants shall not be penalized for working in the legitimate cannabis industry.”

Hancock also asked the Department of Justice to “uphold Colorado’s states’ rights by respecting our voters and providing guidance to all DOJ employees clearly indicating that legal immigrants shall not be penalized for working in the legitimate cannabis industry.”

Both immigrants, Mayor Hancock added, have lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. In an interview with Cannabis Wire, City Attorney Bronson also shared that neither Oswaldo Barrientos, who was born in El Salvador, nor the other resident in question, who hails from Lithuania, have criminal backgrounds. (The latter has opted not to disclose her name due to concerns that ties to the cannabis industry could jeopardize her current employment in the medical field.)

The application and interview portions of the naturalization process, said Bronson, pose a threat to lawful permanent residents. Among other things, applicants are asked: “Have you ever violated, or engaged in a conspiracy to violate, any law relating to controlled substances?” And though cannabis is legal in Colorado and a handful of other states and jurisdictions, it continues to be listed as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act.

“They think they’re just going to go in, tell the truth,” said Bronson, but telling the truth could trigger a host of consequences. In addition to being denied citizenship, they are also more susceptible to being handed over to immigration officials if ever detained at the municipal level. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Bronson pointed out, has access to local law enforcement data. Moreover, the two residents can no longer travel outside the country. Because they have been flagged for committing a “crime of moral turpitude,” they could be stopped at the border, then held in detention as they await removal proceedings—a process that could take years.

Barrientos, whose family migrated to the United States when he was one year old, has been living in the United States since the late 1980s. The inability to travel means he cannot visit his aging grandmother, he told Cannabis Wire. He also cannot accompany his girlfriend of 11 years to visit her father, who also lives abroad.

“It’s really hard to think about the future right now,” he said. “I’m hoping some kind of change comes from all this.”

In addition to the letter to the Department of Justice, Denver has partnered with local organizations and the cannabis industry to “more effectively inform immigrants of the risk, under federal law, of working in Colorado’s legal cannabis industry.”  

Soon, the city will distribute a bilingual flyer, which will also be provided to prospective employees, warning them of the disconnect between federal and state policies. Denver officials will also be airing a PSA on local public television stations designed to warn noncitizens of the risk of possessing, consuming, selling, or growing cannabis under federal law, as well as working with agencies throughout the state.

The goal, said City Attorney Bronson, is to ensure that “information about this issue reaches the entire immigrant community.” Hancock, who is part of a national coalition of mayors of cities that have legalized cannabis, will also be sharing the letter he wrote to the DOJ with his counterparts.

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