Pot workers? Maybe. Users? No, U.S. says
WINDSOR — The blunt message from the United States to Canadians who have ever used marijuana recreationally? Stay out of our country.
It comes as StatsCan estimated more than five million Canadians will buy pot legally between Wednesday, when it is legalized, and the end of the year.
For months, Canadians had sought clarification on how visitors might be treated at the U.S. border. Last month, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection responded with a public statement. Anyone admitting to having used pot at any point in their life “is inadmissible to the United States.”
Lifelong greenhouse operator Cole Cacciavillani said he’s never consumed pot, but as a co-founder of Leamington’s Aphria Inc., a licensed and government-regulated producer of cannabis products, he was at risk of being banned from the U.S.
Early this week, U.S federal authorities said anyone involved in the marijuana industry, including Aphria’s investors and its almost 500 workers, were to be treated like drug traffickers. On Wednesday, the agency’s September statement was “updated” to 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 legalization in Canada and a growing number of U.S. states, “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 blocks from the busiest border crossing south of Vancouver, already is 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 said, 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 already is getting one or two calls a day from Canadians deemed inadmissible at the border after admitting to previous pot use, advises travellers not to 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 has 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 different from Leo Lucier, a longtime Windsor pot activist who hopes to launch a legit business once Ontario permits private retail sales next spring.
“If you want to cross the border, lie. I’d lie through my teeth, 100 per cent,” he said.
While not an advocate of pot use, longtime Windsor immigration lawyer Drew Porter said there’s “common sense” in the evolving laws of Canada and individual states, but it’s one that is “not reconciled” with current U.S. federal law.
“There’s going to be cultural problems as a result . . . and it’s going to be in our face here in Windsor and along the border,” he said.
“This has the potential to become unmanageable,” said Porter. “It comes down to whether or not you’re asked the wrong question by (U.S. border agents).”
While U.S. Customs agents have a duty to protect their border, and entering that country remains a privilege and not a right for foreign travellers, Porter described it as “overkill” when two young Canadian women he represents were slapped with lifetime bans on entering the U.S. after admitting they’d once smoked pot.
It’s a sensitive political issue. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, as well as the office of Bill Blair, Canada’s minister of border security and organized crime reduction, did not respond to repeated requests for comment by Postmedia News for this story.
Last month, Blair told reporters it’s not Canada’s place to “dictate or tell the United States or any other country how they manage their border.”