I'm a French citizen currently staying in Los Angeles for studies under an F1 Visa. I was told that in the US, only federal law applies to foreigners which is why despite Pot being legalized in California I was told that I am forbidden from buying/consuming it.

So I am wondering, what laws do apply to me?

Do I have to comply with State laws? What if State and Federal laws contradict each other?

  • Dude, you can definitely buy weed in California. Did you try it?
    – user91988
    Mar 13, 2020 at 15:52
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    @user91988 You can definitely break into military bases in CA also, but the Feds will have a big problem if you do. Mar 13, 2020 at 17:06
  • @Harper-ReinstateMonica I don't understand. We're talking about weed.
    – user91988
    Mar 13, 2020 at 19:00
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    @user91988 Which is just as illegal as Federal trespassing. (Does CA have a law against federal trespassing? I bet they don't.) Mar 13, 2020 at 19:05
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    One thing worth noting on top of the other answers is that you also have the protection of the US Constitution when it comes to criminal proceedings. The reason you're pretty much screwed during immigration proceedings is that they are civil and you have much fewer protections there.
    – Dancrumb
    Mar 14, 2020 at 19:35

3 Answers 3


All laws (federal, state and local) apply to everybody, unless you have diplomatic immunity. That is, unless e.g. the federal government decides as a matter of policy to ignore certain federal laws. California does not have a law generally prohibiting the use of marijuana, though public consumption is illegal, minor consumption is illegal, and possession over 28.5 grams is illegal. So that is one less law to be concerned with violating. The federal law still exists, and has not been repealed for anyone. However, the federal government by policy is not pursuing marijuana cases in legal contexts in those states that have legalized marijuana.

The complication for foreign students is that there are also immigration laws whereby you may be deported for a drug offense (that link is full of technical details on immigration and drug laws, worth reading). The immigration laws basically make it easy to penalize a foreigner (for example you might be deemed "inadmissible" so you cannot be re-admitted to the US if you leave; it just depends on what their grounds are for action). For example, "a noncitizen is inadmissible as of the moment that immigration authorities gain substantial and probative 'reason to believe' the noncitizen has ever participated in drug trafficking," which does not mean a conviction. It is reported that in California, DHS officers have treated minor infractions as "convictions," which means to be safe you have to avoid even infractions.

It appears (and hire an immigration attorney if you want to test this) that trouble only arises if there is reason to believe you are trafficking, if you are a drug addict or abuser, if you are "convicted" (not necessarily "tried and found guilty," it also includes certain legal maneuverings), or if you admit to drug use (even in the case of home use under doctor's orders, i.e. a California-legal context). This incidentally includes non-use but working for the marijuana industry. It is possible that you could get stopped on the street by a random immigration search, and if you are in possession, then... it is not guaranteed that possession of a small amount of marijuana, when caught by federal authorities, cannot lead to immigration problems.

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    I was struggling to think what kernel of truth might have been behind the obviously incorrect idea that "only federal law applies to foreigners." Immigration law is almost certainly it. (After all, most provisions of immigration law do in fact apply to foreigners, and only to foreigners, not to US citizens.)
    – phoog
    Mar 12, 2020 at 21:49
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    It is also important for foreign nationals to recognize that immigration courts are not criminal legal proceedings and thus are not subject to the same levels of scrutiny, appeal, and rights as criminal proceedings. It can be a very brutal process.
    – Tiger Guy
    Mar 12, 2020 at 23:56
  • Thanks for the answer, I figured it might've been something like this, having only federal law apply to foreigners seemed a littel odd to me haha. I confirmed your answer however I cannot upvote because I currently have no rep
    – R3D34THR4Y
    Mar 13, 2020 at 5:08

only federal law applies to foreigners

This is not correct. For example, there is no federal law criminalizing murder generally. (There are federal laws criminalizing murder in certain specific circumstances.) If you killed the shopkeeper around the corner, you probably would not have violated any federal law. You will of course be subject to prosecution, conviction, and punishment under California state law.

So I am wondering, what laws do apply to me?

US federal law, California law, and the ordinances of the municipalities you live in or visit all apply to you. There may also be laws from your country of citizenship that apply to you even though you are not presently in its territory.

Do I have to comply with State laws?


What if State and Federal laws contradict each other?

It depends on the nature of the conflict. If one set of laws forbids something and the other does not, then the thing is generally forbidden. The situation is weird with respect to marijuana, however, and I am afraid that I have no idea how it applies to you as a foreign nonimmigrant resident of California.

If Federal and state laws conflict more directly, then federal law applies pursuant to the supremacy clause of the US constitution:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

As ably pointed out in user6726's answer, the truth behind what you heard probably lies in immigration law. That is, it's not that California law doesn't apply to foreigners, but that certain federal laws don't apply to US citizens. A US citizen cannot be removed or excluded from the US under immigration law, but you can be.

December, 2021:

Revisiting this question and its answers, it occurs to me that it might be worth mentioning that treason can only be committed by US nationals (including US citizens). That's a law that doesn't apply to foreigners, though, not one that does. Still, any act that would constitute treason if committed by a US national would surely constitute one or more crimes for which a foreigner could be convicted, so not being liable for treason isn't much of an advantage.

  • Thanks for the answer! Very concise and with examples, unfortunately I cannot upvote because I currently have no rep but thanks a lot!
    – R3D34THR4Y
    Mar 13, 2020 at 5:09

All the laws apply to you.

But you have extra rules: the conditions of your visa. Non-citizens are present at the pleasure of the government, and the big four they don't want (unless visa allows) are overstaying the visa, seeking employ, using public support, and committing crimes.

You also have an extra consequence: refusal on your next attempt to enter the US. Or in extreme or unlucky cases, deportation.

Yes, activities with illegal drugs can render you inadmissible, if you are caught with them or admit use. Marijuana is illegal Federally, which means immigration treats it as illegal.

California's "legalization" of pot simply means it will stop participating in enforcement, and provide a peaceful/orderly path for growing and distribution. The Feds hate it, but they are limited politically because they don't want to risk Congress legalizing Federally. So what what can they do? They can bust immigrants. You don't vote.

  • Noncitizens (not including noncitizen US nationals) cannot commit treason.
    – phoog
    Dec 10, 2021 at 13:38

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