How The Marijuana Border Policy Can Deny Canadian Users Entry Into U.S.


If you’re a Canadian and you admit to having used marijuana, you may be banned from entering the United States. Yes, those United States, where medical marijuana is legal in many places.

The case of a Canadian man who was denied entry into the U.S. because he admitted to having smoked cannabis recreationally has set off a debate about the power being wielded by border agents and their use of a federal law against marijuana use.

Given Canada’s plans to legalize marijuana, there are understandably some concerns within the Canadian government about the ability for its citizens to travel across the border relatively unimpeded. What’s even more baffling is the fact that citizens from British Columbia would be crossing the border into Washington State, one of the four U.S. states where even recreational cannabis use is legal.

A Ludicrous Situation

Speaking to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale admitted that this was a ludicrous situation given the status of marijuana as legal for medicinal use in 25 states plus the District of Columbia and legal for recreational use in four.

And a spokesman said that, while the two governments have been in contact with one another regarding Canada’s plans to legalize marijuana, the issue of Canadians being stopped at the border and subsequently banned from entering has not yet been discussed.

Honesty – Not the Best Policy?

The Canadian man whose honesty brought this issue to light is 39-year-old British Columbia resident Matthew Harvey. He was stopped at a border crossing in Washington state in 2014 when he was 37. He was asked if he had used marijuana recreationally in the past when a customs officer happened to notice a marijuana magazine in his car.

He was then hauled in for further questioning and detained for six hours before being denied entry at that moment in time and banned from future entry.

Now, put yourself in Matthew’s shoes for a moment. A legal medical marijuana user in Canada, who was driving into a state where marijuana (both medicinal and recreational) is legal – there’s every chance you wouldn’t think twice about telling the truth either.

But while cannabis is legal at a state level, it is still illegal at the federal level. And the U.S. Federal Government controls the border, so you can see why things become a little fuzzy.

Matthew can still apply for a travel waiver in order to be admitted to the U.S. on a temporary basis, but this is both expensive – costing $585 ($752 Cdn) – and entirely discretionary, in that the waiver may be okay for one year, two years, or five years, depending on the discretion of the approval officer.

And when the waiver expires, he’ll have to apply and pay once again, and the fee is set to increase to $930 ($1,195) later this year.

All Change in the North

The Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau swept to victory in 2015 after campaigning on a promise to legalize recreational marijuana in Canada. The government is set to introduce legislation by the spring of 2017.

This progressive stance north of the border mirrors that of a number of states across the U.S. And that number could be set to grow further with nine more states heading to the polls in November to vote on recreational or medical marijuana proposals.

Yet the sticking point for Canadian citizens wishing to cross the border into the United States is the immigration law as it currently exists. Individuals will become ineligible for admittance into the country if they voluntarily admit to having committed a crime involving moral turpitude – in other words, “conduct that is considered contrary to community standards of justice, honesty or good morals.”

And, if Canada follows through on its plans to legalize marijuana in 2017, further complications might arise. The U.S. law can prevent people from entering the country if they admit to having used drugs “illegally”; however, it does not ban people from crossing if they currently use drugs legally.

This may result in a situation where a border agent, at his or her own discretion, denies a person entry not because they currently use cannabis legally but because there’s a fairly good chance they’ve used it illegally at some point in the past.

Crossing the Marijuana Border: What to Say When Heading South

As Ralph Goodale pointed out to CBC that Canadian citizens should be well advised that the United States of America will enforce its federal laws as it deems necessary. On the face of it, that’s all good and well. It’s another country’s laws, and there’s not a lot that can be done about it.

However, the sheer hypocrisy of a border existing between two locations where cannabis is legal, which prevents the movement of a person who has admitted to consuming cannabis is still hard to swallow. What’s more, there are plenty of other legitimate criminal acts that do not throw up barriers to entering the U.S., such as a DUI conviction, for example.

And Matthew Harvey is not the only one to succumb to this crazy decision. A Toronto law firm has reportedly heard from at least 50 people during the past two years who were banned from entering the United States for being too honest with a border agent when pressed about marijuana use.

So, Canadians, what exactly should you say if you’re planning a sojourn south of the border?

Well, you can very simply refuse to answer the question. You might be held for several hours, but there is no legal requirement to answer when asked. Or, if you’re in a hurry to beat the lines at Disney World, you can flat out deny any past cannabis use whatsoever.

That should see you safely on your way into the land of the free and onto Space Mountain.

Are you from Canada? Have you encountered issues crossing the border? Do you think things need to change to allow for the legality of marijuana in both countries? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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