Legalization of Cannabis in Israel – Risks for Travelers and Visa Applicants in the United States


The legalization of cannabis is one of the platforms of the coalition of several parties that agreed to form a new Israeli government on June 2nd, 2021. The promise to legalize cannabis, if implemented, would build on previous laws that decriminalized certain simple possession of cannabis offenses. Israel has the most advanced cannabis research centers in the world and has a long history of licensed cannabis use for medicinal purposes. There have been several proposals to fully legalize cannabis for regulated recreational use. However, due to Israel’s longstanding political stalemate, these proposals were not implemented beforehand. Now it seems that the new ruling coalition proposed by Israel could get enough votes in the Israeli Knesset to pass new cannabis legislation as promised.

The opportunities for new commercial and recreational opportunities for the cannabis industry in Israel are in line with developments in the United States. In early 2021, New York State passed law approving multiple categories of licenses for cannabis production, distribution, and research. In April 2021, New Mexico became the 17th state to legalize marijuana. On May 24, 2021, following a letter of intent with the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), New Mexico received a $ 300 million investment that will enable the establishment of a dedicated center for medical cannabis research.

Possession, sale, or distribution of cannabis for anything other than the limited medical research purposes approved by the DEA remains a federal criminal offense. While the current US administration has signaled that it will not actively enforce federal laws regarding the simple possession of cannabis, it has no legal effect. A recent ruling by the Ninth District Court of Appeals upheld a federal tax court ruling denying millions in business expenses related to revenue from a cannabis business. The appeals court dismissed an appeal from Patients Mutual Assistance Collective Corp, which operates as Harborside Health Center, one of the largest marijuana dispensaries in the United States, ruling that the state’s ban on marijuana included the exclusion or deduction of business expenses of taxable income from a cannabis business.

Travelers to the United States and visa applicants from Israel should carefully observe US federal law, not state law, regarding cannabis. Federal immigration laws apply to anyone who has ever used marijuana, even if such use was legal under state law. The federal controlled substances act can also apply to anyone who is or has been employed in the rapidly growing cannabis industry. Federal immigration laws related to controlled substances affect visa applicants whether or not they have a criminal record in Israel or elsewhere. Violations of U.S. controlled substance laws for non-citizens can cause serious immigration problems, including bans on temporary nonimmigrant or permanent immigrant visas and admission at the border or an airport. If a visa applicant admits to a U.S. consul that they have ever owned marijuana, a visa is likely to be denied. Some activities resulting from employment in the cannabis industry could also be considered trafficking for the purposes of federal controlled substances law. Failure to discuss such use, employment, or commercial activities may be viewed as a misrepresentation on a visa application. Any such misrepresentation will remain on a non-citizen’s immigration record permanently, even if federal law is eventually amended to legalize cannabis use and distribution.

Pending amendments to United States federal law, non-U.S. Citizens who wish to visit or obtain a U.S. visa should avoid using cannabis or working in the cannabis industry, even if cannabis becomes legal in Israel.