US immigration has some pretty harsh rules when it comes to drug and alcohol use. Those who are seeking entry to the US, whether as a visitor or permanent immigrant, must meet strict guidelines for prior criminal drug history and prior drug or alcohol addiction. Even something as seemingly minor as taking one hit of marijuana could make an applicant inadmissible for a period of time. Those who are already inside the US can be deported for some of the same issues, and applicants for US citizenship can see the American dream dashed before their eyes if they have drug-related offenses or significant alcohol-related problems.

All foreign nationals are inadmissible to the United States if they have been convicted, or have admitted to the essential elements, of any drug-related offense. There are no waivers available for this type of inadmissibility, except in the very limited instance of one drug possession charge for less than 30 grams of pot. The inadmissibility is permanent and the applicant will never be able to get a green card. However, he or she may qualify for a non-immigrant waiver of the drug charge and be allowed to temporarily visit the US.

However, it’s not just those with drug convictions that must worry about admissibility to the United States. Those with alcohol or drug related issues in their background could also be deemed inadmissible. For intending immigrants (green card applicants), an immigration medical exam must be conducted prior to the green card interview. Those with alcohol-related incidents in their history, such as driving under the influence or domestic violence, could be flagged by medical staff for further psychological evaluation. If a mental health professional finds that the alcohol problems are ongoing and pose a danger to others, the applicant could very well be barred from immigrating to the US until such time as they are deemed rehabilitated. For applicants who find themselves in this situation, completed alcohol or drug rehab in one of the many licensed addiction treatment centers may be in order to show officials that they have been rehabilitated.

Unlike those with alcohol-related issues, who typically have some sort of dangerous behavior associated with the alcohol problem, people who have experimented with any illegal substance can be deemed inadmissible to the US for a period of time. Until recently, it was possible for doctors to cause the denial of green card applications of any person who admitted to illegal drug use in the three years prior to the medical exam. The period of inadmissibility would then run for three years from the date of last use. This practice, sanctioned by the US Centers for Disease Control, had been a lightening rod for immigration and addiction advocates and was deemed grossly unfair by the majority of immigration practitioners in the United States.

In a typical case, a green card applicant would attend his medical exam in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (CDJ). During the exam, the medical officer would ask about prior drug use. Unaware of the potential pitfall in providing a truthful answer, the applicant would admit to having a hit off a joint the previous weekend.  Even though this applicant may have no criminal record, no history of drug or alcohol abuse, and really did have just one hit, he would find himself barred from entering the US for two years, eleven months and three weeks. Even those in addiction remission or recovery would be found to be inadmissible if he or she admitted to prior drug use within the previous three years.

CDC Revises Immigration Drug Abuse Policy

In a move that has been applauded by immigration advocates and addiction professionals, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently lifted the immigration ban for some green card applications that have been found to have drug use issues.

Perhaps in response to the numerous complaints lodged by those applicants who found themselves caught by the bizarre “one toke and out for three years” rule, the CDC has revised its rules on drug use and reduced the “drug free” wait time from three years to one year.

Determining Remission in the Immigration Context

While remission from substance-related disorders had been deemed to be at least three years from the most recent drug use, doctors are now permitted by the CDC to find remission after only one year. This mirrors the one-year remission period defined in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM defines remission as a period of at least 12 months during which no drug use has occurred. In order to determine if there has been sustained remission, doctors are urged to examine evidence regarding the applicant’s participation in a drug treatment program. For those who were found to be inadmissible due to an alcohol-related DUI, doctors can find remission based on as assessment of harmful behavior associated with alcohol use.

Alcohol Abuse in the Immigration Context

Whether applying for a green card or a non-immigrant visa, immigration applicants who have a history of alcohol-related incidents, such as DUI (driving under the influence) will likely find themselves referred to medical professionals to determine if there is evidence of alcohol dependence. Consular officials will refer applicants who have one alcohol-related incident within the preceding five years, two or more alcohol-related incidents within the preceding 10 years, or if there is any other reason for the consular office to believe that there could be an alcohol problem.

Alcohol and Drug Use and Non-immigrants

While the CDC rules ostensibly apply to both immigrants and non-immigrants, most non-immigrants do not undergo immigration medical exams unless consular officers discover a potential problem in the applicant’s background. Thus, there is no opportunity for a doctor to question him or her about recent drug use. Non-immigrants with alcohol-related criminal issues, however, such as driving under the influence or domestic violence, could very well find themselves referred for medical and psychological examination prior to being allowed to visit the United States.

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