When Canada's marijuana legalization bill received Royal Assent this past June, cannabis consumers across the country had cause for celebration. And while the magnitude of bill’s passage will continue to reverberate for months and years to come, less certain is how other countries like the United States will react to cannabis legalization.
The importance of Canada's relationship with America can't be overstated. Not only do the two countries share the longest undefended border in the free world, but Canada is one of America’s biggest trading partners, buying more goods from the US than China, Japan and the UK combined. And then there's the sheer amount of border traffic to consider.
In 2010, Canadians took almost 20 million overnight trips to the US. But that could change now because of cannabis legalization. Even though nine states have legalized recreational use and another 22 have approved medical marijuana, cannabis remains a Schedule I drug in America. And any visitor who admits to using it risks a lifetime ban from entering the US, no matter how long ago the offense might have taken place.
And there's no reason to believe America will change that policy once legalization becomes law on October 17.
"I’ve spoken with U.S. Customs Officers and have been told that, as far as they know, it’s going to be business as usual at the border," Len Saunders - an immigration lawyer based in Blaine, Washington - told Civilized. "They’ve said that unless they are issued guidance from US Customs and Border Control on how to handle these admissions, the policy will remain the same and will continue to be enforced."
That should make every globetrotting cannabis consumer nervous, but you can reduce the likelihood of having a bad scene at the border by following Saunders' tips to avoid getting a lifetime ban from America.
1. Honesty isn't the best policy
Being forthcoming about your cannabis use is a bad idea, according to Saunders.
"A lot of people want to be open and honest with border guards when they get asked about their usage, but they simply don’t understand the consequences that can stem from that 'honesty'," he told Civilized.
He added that Canadian lawmakers like Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Border Security Minister Bill Blair are making matters more difficult by telling Canadians to be upfront about their cannabis use, even though the repercussions could have a massive impact on their freedom to travel in North America.
"Both Goodale and Blair have said Canadians should be honest with border agents, but for cannabis users, there’s no happy medium," Saunders explained. "If you admit to having consumed marijuana, it’s a lifetime ban; if you lie about your marijuana use and they find out, that’s also a lifetime ban."
2. Don't lie
So if you can't lie or tell the truth about your cannabis use without risking a lifetime ban, the only thing left is to keep quiet about your cannabis use.
"The best thing I can advise is to say nothing," Saunders said. "Don’t answer the question. You can be denied entry that one time, but it’s nothing that will get you barred for life. The Canadian government shouldn’t be telling Canadians to be truthful because they don’t understand the consequences. They are not in the business of giving legal advice, but they also need to wake up and realize what’s going to happen after October 17 when potentially thousands upon thousands of Canadians are facing a lifetime ban from entering the US for partaking in something that’s perfectly legal within Canadian borders."
3. 'Have your shit together'
Of course, the best case scenario would be to avoid getting asked about using cannabis in the first place. Your best bet to fly under the guard's marijuana radar is to avoid dressing like a stereotypical stoner.
"My first tip would be to just have your shit together," Saunders told Civilized. "Look professional and respectable because there is a lot of profiling that happens in that interaction with the border guard. If you’re in your early 20’s, crossing the border with dreadlocks, a tie dye t-shirt and baggy pants, you’re probably going to be scrutinized a lot more than a 45-year-old man that’s crossing with his wife and kids."
4. Be polite
This one shouldn't be too hard given Canada's rep for politeness, but travelers should mind their manners even if border guards are being rude.
"Another important thing is to be polite, no matter the circumstance," Saunders said. But that doesn't mean being a pushover. Guards might try to trick you into telling too much of the truth, so you have to be ready to stand your ground.
"[T]here’s a lot of fearmongering that takes place. Be aware of that. A lot of border agents will insist you tell them truthful answers to the questions they are asking, and some even threaten the lie detector, but they can’t legally do that. If their questions have nothing to do with your admissibility to the US, the answers aren’t any of their business."
And if you do get banned...
Getting that dreaded lifetime ban doesn't mean you'll never ever be allowed to set foot on American soil again. But it does mean that you'll face a lifetime of onerous paperwork.
"You'll need to have a waiver in order to cross the border again," Saunders explained. "It’s something you need for the rest of your life. There was a time when requests for waivers relating to marijuana offenses were somewhat of a rarity, but following the State of Washington’s legalization of cannabis in 2012, there began a significant uptake in people needing waivers because Canadians were crossing the border stating their intentions to go buy marijuana or having admitted to smoking it in the past."
But hopefully you won't need that if you follow steps 1-4 closely.