The California Bureau of Cannabis Control’s Final Regulations Immigration Impact on Foreign “Owners”

cannabis marijuana immigrationOn January 16, 2019, each of the three California cannabis agencies dropped a final set of regulations. In many senses, the Bureau of Cannabis Control’s (“BCC”) regulations were the most comprehensive and expansive (we summarized some of the highlights here, and summarized the highlights of the California Department of Public Health’s final regulations here). In one area in particular, the BCC’s regulations may have some unintended and far-reaching effects: immigration.

For some reference, one of the biggest changes to the BCC’s regulations is in the “ownership” disclosure requirements, which now will require disclosure of persons as potential owners who may be far removed from the actual licensed entity. To recap, in the post linked above, we wrote:

[The BCC’s] entity ownership requirements kick in in any situation in which a company owns a licensee—not only where the ownership is based in equity (remember that ownership can also be based on direction, management, or control of a licensee or other grounds). If an entity is considered an owner, then anyone with a financial interest in that entity must be disclosed to the BCC and may be considered an owner.

This is a tremendously significant requirement and means that virtually everyone in the corporate chain must be disclosed (and probably must provide all of the many significant and burdensome disclosures). For example, if John Smith directly owns 1% of the BCC licensee ABC Retailer and does not exercise any control over ABC Retailer, he will be considered a financial interest holder as opposed to an owner.  But if he owns 1% of XYX Holdings, which has a 20% stake in ABC Retailer, he will need to be disclosed to the BCC and may be considered an owner.”

What this could mean in other words is that more people, and people higher up a corporate chain, may need to make “ownership” disclosures. One of those disclosures is the requirement per BCC Regulation 5002(c)(20)(D) to provide a Social Security Number (“SSN”) or individual taxpayer identification number (“ITIN”), and another is the requirement to obtain a live scan. These are significant requirements for foreign persons who “own” cannabis businesses and, as described below, could affect their immigration status.

SSNs are available for residents and citizens of the United States. ITINs may be available in limited circumstances to foreign persons who have a need for tax identification purposes in the United States, but they are somewhat complex to obtain and require certain documentation (either a federal income tax return or some “exemption” documents). And live scans are federal background checks that land in federal databases, and as a result, in hot water.

The reason background checks for foreign nationals are problematic is that any direct or peripheral involvement in the cannabis industry is incompatible with the immigration laws of the United States. This applies to everyone who is not a United States citizen, including lawful permanent residents (i.e., green card holders), those living, studying, and/or working in the United States under an authorized nonimmigrant visa, those temporarily visiting the United States for business or pleasure, and of course, those who have no legal status in the United States.

As explained previously, even where a foreign person is traveling to a state where marijuana is legal, federal law applies at all U.S. ports-of-entry and preflight clearance locations (the “border”). The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) officer at the border has the legal authority to question the foreign person about the purpose of the visit and has advance access to the list of airline passengers on each flight and the license plate of each vehicle waiting at a border checkpoint.

By the time a foreign person is greeted by the CBP officer, seemingly unrelated dots between a web search and live scan and other databases have already been connected for the officer to use in questioning the foreign person about his connection to a cannabis business.

If the foreign person wants to lie about his involvement, he should absolutely not. The CBP has broad authority to search electronic devices, including cell phones and laptops. If the CBP officer finds any information to contradict the foreign person’s statements, it can potentially permanently ban him or her from entering the United States because of fraud or misrepresentation, and not just for violating the Controlled Substances Act.

Under the BCC’s new ownership regulations and its live scan requirement, a few things are clear. First, persons who earlier may not have qualified as owners now might. This may include a host of foreign citizens who now need to obtain ITINs and undergo live scans. Second, live scans are part of a federal database, so federal agents may be able to stop and ask clients questions about why they have undergone live scans. Moreover, and third, under the BCC’s live scan memo (linked above), live scan forms won’t be sent until an application is made, so foreign persons entering the United States to undergo a live scan will by definition already have applied for a cannabis application and thus may risk being turned away.

What’s clear is that ownership of a cannabis business is a risk when it comes to immigration. The BCC’s newest regulations may pass that risk on to a host of new persons. Stay tuned to the Canna Law Blog for more developments. In the meantime, for more on immigration and cannabis, check out the following:

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Author: Griffen Thorne and Akshat Divatia
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