Recreational marijuana is now legal in Canada, but what does that mean for our relationship with our closest neighbour and biggest trading partner?
Issues linked to the Canada-United States border were top of mind for many officials as Canada prepared for legalization. How would it affect screening at the crossings? What about pot tourists coming here from the states? And how would American officials react to Canadians who admitted they’d consumed the drug in the past?
In most of the U.S., the recreational use and possession of marijuana remains illegal. President Donald Trump’s administration has also taken a harder line on the drug than the Obama administration, which seemed content to allow individual states to determine their approach without much federal interference.
But in 2018, crossing into the United States with any pot or pot paraphernalia in your car or luggage is definitely not a good idea.
Here’s a rundown of everything Canadians need to know about marijuana and the border, drawn from nearly two years of in-depth reporting by Global News.
One of the biggest changes Canadians may see could simply be the amount of time it takes to get across the border.
Everyone from the Canada Border Services Agency to trade experts to the mayor of Windsor have flagged the possibility that many Americans are going to buy Canadian marijuana and want to bring some home, creating headaches for U.S. border officials.
Just as inevitably, more southbound travellers are going to be singled out for further scrutiny when they cross the border, slowing things down in that direction as well.
The delays could be particularly bad during summer months as visitors arrive for outdoor festivals, concerts and 4/20 cannabis events that occur every April 20, according to the CBSA. The delays could be felt at airports and at land crossings.
Windsor’s mayor told a Senate committee last spring that the new reality will slow the movement not only of people, but of goods. That could have significant economic fallout, he warned.
There have been mixed messages from the Canadian government about how to approach U.S. border guards who are curious about your past marijuana use.
Canadians can be barred from entering the United States if they admit to ever having consumed marijuana, even if they consumed the drug legally, and even if they are entering a U.S. state where the drug is legal, like Washington. Even though some U.S. jurisdictions have legalized recreational marijuana, it’s still considered illegal on the federal level, which means border agents across the country will treat smoking the drug as an offence.
However, those who work in the legal cannabis industry may be barred from entering the U.S. if travelling for weed-related reasons. But a week prior to legalization, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reversed course on a policy that would have kept those working in the legal industry out altogether, announcing that pot industry workers may enter the country when travelling for non-business related reasons.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale acknowledged in May that U.S. border officials have the right to bar Canadian travellers from entering the U.S. if they admit to drug use. He said Canadians should try their best to fly under the radar.
“You should not engage in behaviour that would provoke or prompt an American border officer to be suspicious of your behaviour,” Goodale told a parliamentary committee.
Border Security Minister Bill Blair, who until recently served as the government’s point-person on pot, advised Canadians to always be truthful with border guards, even if it means being turned away and banned for life.
But that’s “dangerous” advice, according to U.S. lawyer Len Saunders. He recommended that Canadians refuse to answer questions about past marijuana use. That will probably lead to them being turned back to Canada on that one occasion, but won’t lead to more serious consequences.
U.S. officials have simply advised Canadians not to lie: “Border officials are going to find out if you’re lying. Being honest is always the best. If you are dishonest then you could be denied entry and it’s misrepresentation,” a U.S. border guard said.
There are also concerns surrounding what could happen if consumer data (credit card purchase records, online ordering to a home address, etc.) ends up on servers in the United States. There’s little to stop that data from making its way to U.S. border officials, privacy experts say, which could lead to some uncomfortable questions at the border crossing. In fact, how a credit card marijuana purchase will appear on your bank statement could put you in an impossible position — admit to marijuana use and be banned for that, or deny it and be banned for lying.
Once you’re in America
Once you’re there, it’s important to understand the laws in each state governing marijuana, and how they apply to visitors or non-citizens. If you consume the drug while in a state like Colorado, where it’s legal, that won’t necessarily protect you if U.S. federal officials start asking questions.
In 2016, 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. She found herself in a holding cell, then deported back to Chile with a lifetime ban on entering the United States.
Enforcement is also quite strict in states where marijuana is legal. One study in Colorado revealed that it’s extremely difficult to obtain the drug if you’re underage, for example, so don’t even attempt it.
And, as always, trying to bring the drug over either side of the border is a big no-no.