Marijuana puts access to U.S. under a cloud
Border issue ignored, says Sen. Paul McIntyre.
The federal government’s proposal to legalize marijuana is now before the Senate. Much of the testimony that senators are hearing is disturbing, particularly when it comes to the implications for the Canada-U.S. border. Officially, the Trudeau government claims that there will be no impact on cross-border trade and travel once pot is legalized in Canada. It has asserted that since many U.S. states have liberalized their own marijuana laws, legalization in Canada isn’t a big issue. However, marijuana will remain illegal under U.S. law and it’s the federal government that controls the border.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told senators that Canadians simply need to be cautious when crossing the border. “If you are driving up to the U.S. border and smoking marijuana in your vehicle, you are really asking for a secondary investigation,” he said. “That is very foolish behaviour.”
This simplistic analogy is too flippant about how marijuana legalization may be treated by U.S. authorities.
Senators have heard from U.S. and Canadian witnesses that the mere use of marijuana at some point in an individual’s history can be grounds for being barred entry into the U.S. for life. Questions posed by American officers, which lead to an admission of pot use in the past, can trigger such a ban.
What should concern Canadians is that witnesses have told senators that legalization in Canada will not provide any protection at the border when questioned about past marijuana use. The department of global affairs belatedly acknowledged this when it tabled its “key messages” to travellers with respect to crossing the border. Among those messages was, “You may be denied entry to a foreign country if you have previously used cannabis products, whether for medical purposes or not, even if you used them legally in Canada.”
Anything related to marijuana at the ports of entry is the kiss of death.
Len Saunders, who has practised immigration law in the U.S. for over a decade, told senators that he handles one to two new cases every week from Canadians who have been banned from entering the U.S. for past marijuana use. He anticipates that such cases are likely to increase after legalization.
The problems will likely be even more serious for Canadians who invest in or are involved with a legal marijuana business in Canada. Saunders told senators that “with regard to people who work in the industry … I’ve told people you can’t do that because it’s illegal federally (in the U.S.) In Canada, when it gets legalized, my feeling is anyone involved in that industry is subject to (being) denied entry into the United States.… Anything related to marijuana at the ports of entry is the kiss of death.”
Increased U.S. scrutiny at the border could contribute to lineups and delays. Were this to occur, the repercussions for businesses, particularly those dependent on “just-in-time delivery,” could be serious. Completely inadequate consideration has been given to these issues by the Canadian government. Canadian officials are still only “in discussion” with U.S. authorities on these issues.
In a report tabled by the senate committee this week, it was recommended that the government should immediately take steps to address this problem.
First, the government should seek to secure some form of concrete assurance from American authorities that Canadians will not be punished at the border for doing something that will be legal under Canadian law. Second, the government must be honest with Canadians about the consequences of legalization — any past marijuana use may be grounds for being inadmissible for life to the U.S.
The government’s approach is the opposite of this. It’s rolling the dice and hoping for the best. This is unacceptable since it’s legalization itself that now risks exposing Canadians to increased scrutiny at the border.
Until it’s able to assure Canadians that their safety and security will be protected when they travel, the government should refrain from blindly pressing ahead.
Sen. Paul McIntyre is a member of the Senate standing committee on national security and defence.