As the cannabis laws in the United States continue their constant ebb and flow of legality, many marijuana-lovers and even those who have simply tried pot wanting to enter the U.S. are finding it hard to do so.
Currently, people from all over the world, including those of us from Canada, are being heavily interrogated by border officials. Travelers are getting turned away at the border and even barred for entering the United States for life, just because they’ve owned up to using cannabis in the past.
Upon hearing this news, one would think that there are only a few cases where perhaps an overzealous border guard decided to come down on a handful of unlucky individuals. Unfortunately, however, this has become a regular and disturbing reality.
Recently, SCPR Take Two reported on a story where a tourist coming from Santiago, Chile was thoroughly questioned by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at LAX about her past trips to the United States. CBP searched her bags and accessed her cell phone without asking for permission. Their search uncovered photos taken inside a legal, adult-use dispensary in Colorado.
The border guard then asked her if she had ever used cannabis, and not thinking anything of the question, she answered that she did try some while in Colorado. He then proceeded to ask her if she had ever tried other drugs such as cocaine, acid, or heroin, to which she replied no.
The traveler was then held in a room for fifteen hours before being denied entry into the U.S. indefinitely.
Canada has had a legal medical marijuana system in place since 2001. It was the first country in the world to do so and since then the system has become significantly more robust. Further to that point, cannabis use in Canada has historically been more socially acceptable than other places around the world.
This has prompted border guards to increasingly ask various Canadians if they have ever used cannabis, to the detriment of many looking to enter the “land of liberty.”
Alan Ranta is a Canadian journalist living in British Columbia who has experienced this issue first-hand.
“I was on my way down to the Cascadia Music Festival in Washington [State]. I had absolutely nothing on me, but I did have my costume for the party and I don’t think [the border guard] liked the look of me,” Ranta said. He added that his costume had nothing with marijuana leaves on it, he just wore a pair of fake sunglasses and a funny-looking hat. “I looked like I was having too much fun.”
Ranta does enjoy cannabis and he was heading into a state that had legal adult-use cannabis in place, so even trying to “smuggle” some in was not something he would have ever considered. “I’m from Vancouver, so I could have gotten it easily here, but was going to a place where it’s legal so I wasn’t going to bring anything with me.”
Ranta said that the border guard asked him a couple of questions. The guard then pulled him over and started going through his car. Ranta was then taken into an interrogation room, handcuffed, and directly asked if he smoked pot. “I said yeah, and then they asked me more questions like where do I smoke it, and how do I smoke it. I said I usually smoke at home and I usually smoke joints.”
Ranta assumed that the answers to these questions were completely benign, considering he had no marijuana on him and he did not break any U.S. laws by smoking weed in Canada.
Another four hours went by where they took Ranta’s statements and fingerprinted him. They then came back and said that he was denied entry. “He said if I didn’t sign my statement he would arrest me.”
Now, every time Ranta wants to enter the United States he needs to apply for a waiver, which can also be denied. “A waiver costs anywhere from $700 to $1200 [CAD].”
Ranta went back to Canada and quickly consulted with a lawyer about the issue. “Basically there’s nothing you can do, you’re at the federal border and admitted to a criminal offense. Also, I had smoked earlier that day, so if I had lied about it, he openly told me that if I said no and they swabbed me and found any residue, they would have locked me away.” After the incident, various Canadians reached out to Ranta with similar stories.
Since May of 2016 when this happened, Ranta has not been back to the United States, mainly because he cannot afford the waiver. “I don’t have $700 laying around, that’s a month’s rent for me.”
Despite the issues Ranta had with authorities, he hopes that things will change. “You would hope that eventually common sense will prevail.”
One person who is greatly benefitting from all this is Attorney Len Saunders. Saunders is a highly accredited immigration lawyer from Canada who works in Washington State, very close to the Canadian border. He handles many Canadians with the same issue, and although he won’t turn away the business, he wishes that this unfortunate and nonsensical situation wouldn’t happen in the first place.
“I probably file 150 to 200 waivers a year for Canadians who are deemed inadmissible to the United States. The majority of those are for criminal convictions, but a fair amount are for people who have no past criminal convictions, but they’ve admitted at the port of entry that they’ve smoked marijuana in the past. It’s not just me [handling these cases]. There are hundreds, if not thousands of them.”
Saunders added that “Anyone who admits to smoking marijuana is deemed inadmissible for life, it’s a lifetime ban.”
In the case where the Canadian is a card-carrying patient of medical marijuana in Canada, Saunders has seen that become an issue with U.S. Border Patrol as well. “I’ve seen them question someone who has a legally prescribed card. What they will do quite often is they will ask whether they have smoked marijuana before they were issued the card. I’ve yet to see a case where someone goes to the border and says here’s my medical marijuana card and they would be good to go. [Border patrol] usually finds some way around that.”
Saunders sees this on a regular basis. “It’s ridiculous, and what makes it even more crazy is that two blocks south of the Blaine Port of Entry where my office is, you can buy marijuana.”
Saunders warns his fellow Canadians often that even though they may be entering a state where adult-use cannabis is legal, federal laws trump state law at the border. He added that when Canada finally legalizes adult-use cannabis nationally, this problem will only get worse. “I’m expecting my business to boom. When marijuana was legalized in Washington State, I definitely saw my business take off with regards to waivers for Canadians like Alan Ranta.”
One thing Saunders made sure to point out was that even though Ranta and others like him are told they can’t lie otherwise they will be subjected to a drug test, that in itself is a lie. “They don’t do drug tests at the border. They will threaten to do a drug test and people will think that they better admit to it. All of these veiled threats are made and people are ground down and eventually say that they’ve smoked [cannabis] in the past.”
Saunders was also quick to add that if they find you with marijuana in your car, or if you have been convicted in the past for marijuana possession in Canada, you have to admit to it. “[Failing that] I honestly don’t think it’s any of their business what you do in your private time. I’m not advocating people to lie, but you don’t have to answer that question. You can say to them that you won’t answer that question and the worst they can do to you is deny you entry.”
Saunders went on to add that this unfortunate situation can happen to anyone. “One of my most recent clients was Ross Rebagliati. He’s an Olympic Gold Medalist and he needs a waiver. Or for example [Prime Minister] Trudeau. If Trudeau was questioned, not on his diplomatic passport as PM, but if he became private citizen Trudeau, he would be inadmissible, as he has admitted to smoking marijuana.”