You probably can’t work in cannabis in the U.S., even in legal states. Here’s why

Shimon Avta (right) was escorted to a plane in handcuffs after U.S. immigration officials found he worked in Nevada's legal medical marijuana industry. FACEBOOK

At the time, it must have seemed like a meaningless bureaucratic detail.

Shimon Avta, an Israeli agronomist living in Nevada, was having some U.S. immigration documents notarized and needed photo ID to send with them. The only card he happened to have with him was the ID issued by a Las Vegas medical marijuana company where he was doing work for an Israeli company.

Avta’s situation seemed secure enough. He had a 10-year multiple-entry visa and was married to an American, a woman he met at his synagogue.

And from Nevada’s point of view, what he did for a living was perfectly legal — most U.S. states have some kind of system for legal medical marijuana.

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But under U.S. federal law, Avta was a drug trafficker, lucky to escape prosecution.

“He needed some Nevada ID, and all he had was this pass,” explains his lawyer, Ed Prudhomme. “The examiner found this document, which is marijuana employee ID. So they forever barred him as a trafficker.”

On Jan. 6, Avta and Prudhomme went to a meeting at the Las Vegas airport to discuss Avta’s immigration status. Avta found himself on a plane two hours after the meeting ended. He never had a chance to go home.

“I suggested for him to leave the United States rather than being deported,” Prudhomme says. “They were planning to deport him.”

“If my client hadn’t left, deported or otherwise, he could have been charged with a federal offence.”

WATCH: Immigration lawyer Len Saunders spoke with Geoff Hastings on BC1 about what you should do if you are asked about your pot use at the border.
Click to play video: 'Border pot problems predicted to get worse'
Border pot problems predicted to get worse

When he got to the San Francisco airport to get a connecting flight to Israel, immigration officers led him through the airport in handcuffs.

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“It wasn’t supposed to be like that,” Prudhomme says. “He left Vegas on good terms, but when they picked him up in San Francisco, they treated him like he was a deportee or criminal.”

“I was walking with them in the San Francisco airport in handcuffs until we got to the immigration room,” Avta says. “It was shaming, not really a nice situation.”

Avta would have had legal status in the U.S. because he was married to an American, Prudhomme says, but immigration authorities ruled that out because of what they saw as his drug-trafficking activities.

The situation has left Avta’s wife with no choice but to emigrate to Israel if she wants to rejoin her husband.

“It is very stressful,” Prudhomme says.

“She has a good support system here, and if necessary, if he couldn’t get back in, she would even move to Israel. She doesn’t want to. She’s been a U.S. citizen all her life and has a good job here.”

“They have separated us,” Avta says. “Right now, my wife is in America and I am here in Israel. It affects everything. My wife is alone and I am here. I cannot be with her. We cannot be together. They cancelled my visa. I cannot visit.”

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“It’s definitely a difficult situation, in the beginning, and now, and every day.”

An appeal is underway, Prudhomme says.

Avta was caught in a much harsher attitude to marijuana under the Trump administration than under Obama, who was content to let the states make their own decisions. The people who find themselves first in the crosshairs are people who aren’t American.

Under U.S. federal law, there is no such thing as legal marijuana — recreational, medical or otherwise. Despite rumblings, however, federal Attorney General Jeff Sessions has so far hesitated to use the full force of the law on marijuana in states where it’s legal. Non-citizens, however, are much more vulnerable to federal authority than Americans. 

Last year, media reported on the case of a Chilean woman who innocently told U.S. immigration officials in Los Angeles that she had smoked pot in Colorado: “It’s legal there,” she said. She found herself in a holding cell, then deported back to Chile with a lifetime ban on entering the United States, derailing a relationship with a U.S. citizen and her plans to attend grad school in Colorado.

Canadians who admit at the U.S. border that they’ve ever smoked marijuana — even decades ago — face lifetime bans from the United States that immigration officers can impose on the spot.

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Canadians banned from the U.S. can apply for a waiver allowing them to cross, but the process is cumbersome and expensive, and the application has to be restarted from scratch every few years for the rest of the person’s life.

The $11-billion legal U.S. marijuana industry will near 300,000 jobs by 2021. And several occupations on the NAFTA list to get an easily obtained TN visa might be relevant to working in cannabis — plant breeder, for example, or pharmacist.

But while, for all practical purposes, marijuana is legal for Americans working in their own country’s industry — where states allow it — it in effect isn’t for Canadians, who are vulnerable because of their immigration status.

And Canadians who apply for TN visas to work in cannabis are being turned down — and may face worse consequences just for applying, warns Scott Railton, an immigration lawyer in Bellingham, Wash.

“We’ve seen cases where the border has identified people who intend to work in the legalized industry, and they’ve actually denied their admission. I’ve seen, in at least a couple of cases, that they’ve designated the person as being engaged in trafficking.”

“In some ways, the federal government is treating anyone in Canada associated with the legal industry as if they were cartel members.”

Canadians who want jobs peripherally related to marijuana might get TNs, but on the other hand, Railton says, “I’ve seen accountants denied entry, and I’ve seen them have a hard time getting back in later.”

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WATCH: The federal government point person on cannabis legalization, former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, told reporters Wednesday that those concerned about the government’s timeline for marijuana legalization are simply “misinformed.”

Click to play video: 'Blair: People concerned about timeline of marijuana legalization are ‘misinformed’'
Blair: People concerned about timeline of marijuana legalization are ‘misinformed’

“This treatment that I got is because I’m an immigrant, not a citizen,” Avta says. “More than 200,000 people work in this industry in the United States, and every one of them are traffickers and criminals, federally. But nothing happens to them.”

Prudhomme says he’d tell a Canadian with a job offer from a U.S. cannabis business not to take it.

Avta says he would say the same.

“I would say to this person: ‘Stay in Canada. Don’t go to the United States until the rules are fixed.’”

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Railton agrees ” … until things shake out a bit better. There are a lot of legal unknowns with the legal marijuana industry in the U.S. right now.”

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