BOSTON — Immigrants who use marijuana or work in the recreational or medical pot industries could be denied citizenship, even in states like Massachusetts where use of the drug is legal.

That's according to a new directive by the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services, which warns prospective immigrants that using state-permitted marijuana or working for cannabis businesses could jeopardize their legal status or efforts to gain citizenship.

Massachusetts is one of 10 states that have legalized recreational marijuana's use and sale — and 33 states and the District of Columbia that allow pot for medical purposes.

Federal law still bans it, and immigration authorities say they are bound to follow that prohibition when reviewing citizenship applications.

"An applicant who is involved in certain marijuana-related activities may lack good moral character if found to have violated federal law, even if such activity is not unlawful under applicable state or foreign laws," the directive read.

"Possession of marijuana for recreational or medical purposes or employment in the marijuana industry may constitute conduct" that would prohibit naturalization, the directive states.

Immigrants' advocates say the rule is discriminatory and accuse the Trump administration of looking for excuses to deport immigrants.

"It's an outright petty reason to deny someone citizenship," said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "That said, it perfectly fits the profile of the Trump administration, which is to use every excuse to put up barriers for immigrants trying to make the U.S. their home."

Pot industry representatives also blasted the directive, calling it absurd.

"It is ridiculous and discriminatory for people who are trying to become citizens to be denied and often deported based on 'low moral character' for behavior that three of the last four presidents engaged in illegally, and which tens of millions of U.S. residents can now do legally," said Morgan Fox, spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry Association.

"Considering two-thirds of the country thinks cannabis should be legal for adults, there is certainly no consensus that consuming cannabis is immoral," he added. "It is even more absurd to say that it is immoral to work in an industry that is creating jobs and tax revenue while increasingly putting dangerous criminals out of business."

Cases in Colorado, Washington

Nationwide, the cannabis industry employs 125,000 to 160,000 full-time workers, according to trade groups.

While it's not clear if immigrants living in Massachusetts have been denied legal status because of marijuana use or employment, several cases have been reported in Colorado and Washington state, where marijuana also is legal.

In Colorado, attorneys representing two immigrants who work in the industry have accused the Trump administration of unfairly blocking their naturalization.

The state's marijuana regulators recently sent an advisory to pot businesses to warn prospective employees that their work could block citizenship applications.

Groups opposed to legal marijuana have called on the Drug Enforcement Administration to step up enforcement of the federal prohibition, including crackdowns in states where the drug has been legalized.

But U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling has said that while the drug remains illegal at the federal level, his office won't prosecute state-legal pot companies in most cases.

The state's 2016 voter-approved pot law allows adults 21 and over to possess up to 10 ounces of weed, and it authorizes regulated cultivation and retail sales.

To date, 10 retail pot shops have opened throughout the state, including Alternative Therapies Group in Salem.

The shops have reported nearly $76 million in sales since the first one opened in November, according to the Cannabis Control Commission, which regulates the industry.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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