Pot of troubles boiling on the border
WINDSOR — Stay out of our country.
That’s the blunt message from the United States to Canadians who have ever used marijuana recreationally. It comes on the eve of legalization north of the border and a StatsCan estimate of more than five million Canadians who will buy pot legally between Wednesday and the end of the year.
For months, Canadians had sought clarification on how visitors might be treated at the border. In late-September, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection responded with an unambiguous public statement: anyone even admitting to having toked up at some point in their life “is inadmissible to the United States.”
Lifelong greenhouse farmer Cole Cacciavillani said he’s never consumed pot, but he’s the co-founder of Leamington’s Aphria Inc., a licensed and government-regulated producer of cannabis products, and until just days ago he was at risk of being banned from the U.S.
This week, U.S federal authorities quietly tweaked a rule stating that anyone involved in the marijuana industry, including Aphria’s investors and its almost 500 workers, were to be treated no differently than drug traffickers.
On Wednesday, the agency’s September statement was “updated” to now permit those involved professionally in Canada’s legal marijuana industry to enter the U.S., but only for “reasons unrelated to the marijuana industry,” and only for those who have never tried the product.
Despite what the law will soon be north of the border, and despite the growing number of states south of the border deciding to also legalize marijuana, “the sale, possession, production and distribution of marijuana or the facilitation of the aforementioned remain illegal under U.S. federal law,” according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
A majority of U.S. states — 31, as well as Washington D.C. — have legalized cannabis for medicinal use, but American federal law still lumps pot in the same category as heroin or crack.
For those tasked with protecting the U.S frontier, nothing changes at the border when Canada legalizes pot Oct. 17.
“Change the word from marijuana to cocaine, and how’d you expect those (American customs) officers to respond at the border?” said U.S. immigration lawyer Len Saunders. His Blaine, Wash., legal practice, located just blocks from the busiest border crossing south of Vancouver, B.C., is already seeing a boom in business as pot pasts catch up to a growing number of Canadians.
“Your government has failed to understand the consequences on Canadians who cross the border,” said Saunders, who visited Ottawa last spring to advise senators of looming potential border troubles following legalization. “I warned them: ‘This is going to get worse.’”
The advice from the prime minister and Ottawa’s federal ministers has been for travellers to be honest in all their answers at the border, but Saunders said Canadians answering in the affirmative to any question about previous pot use face lifetime bans on visiting the U.S.
“That’s the worst advice,” said Saunders, whose clients include Olympic gold medallist Ross Rebagliati. Lying and answering ‘no’ when asked is just as bad, he added, especially as U.S. Customs officers have the authority to go through a potential visitor’s cellphone or laptop and search that person’s internet profile and online social and financial transactions (Ontario, Canada’s biggest pot market, will only permit online pot purchases until at least next April).
Saunders, whose office is already getting one or two calls a day from Canadians deemed inadmissible at the border after admitting to previous pot use, advises travellers to simply not answer the question and accept being turned around on that particular day.
U.S. customs officers, said Saunders, are just “doing their jobs, enforcing federal immigration law.”
What happens after Oct. 17 is “definitely a concern,” said Aphria’s Cacciavillani, and it’s why Aphria had sought legal advice and been in discussions with government officials on both sides of the border, including the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. Cacciavillani said he and his wife will continue to visit nearby Detroit to watch professional sports or to go out for dinner. “We’re not doing business in the U.S. — we’re not breaking any laws,” he said.
Always answer questions honestly at the border, said Cacciavillani.
But the advice is quite different from Leo Lucier, a long-time Windsor pot activist who hopes to launch a legit business once Ontario permits private retail sales next spring.
Vehicles enter the Windsor-Detroit tunnel on the American side of the border, where Canadians open about their use of marijuana could be in for a rough ride once recreational pot use becomes legal in Canada next Wednesday.