On October 17, 2018, marijuana officially became legal in Canada. It was undoubtedly a great day for the nation’s cannabis industry, but it has also thrown up some awkward questions regarding what happens to Canadian marijuana employees when they enter the United States. Remember, weed may be legal in 30 U.S. states (plus Washignton D.C.) for medicinal or recreational use, but it is still federally illegal – and has been for over 80 years.
In theory, Canadians who work in the cannabis industry can be refused entry into the U.S., and possibly even banned for life.
In practice, however, no one has a clue what will happen on a larger or more long-term scale. According to United States law, non-Americans can be barred at the border for ‘assisting or abetting in the illicit trafficking of drugs,’ and in Washington state, dozens of Canadians have already been refused entry into the U.S. – some of whom are simply investors that have money tied up in legally-traded pot companies.
Sound crazy? We would probably have to agree, but let’s take a little deeper look at what exactly is going on in the bigger picture.
A False Sense of Security?
Len Saunders is an immigration lawyer who operates out of Blaine, Washington. He admits to having no answer to what he calls a ‘million-dollar question.’
According to existing laws, Canadians are regularly banned from America if they admit using weed in Canada, or if they have a criminal record for possession.
According to Saunders, legalization could easily give Canadians a “false sense of security.” In his opinion, however, it is unlikely that drastic change will occur. Even a U.S. Customers and Border Protection spokesperson, Stephanie Malin, refused to shed light on the situation, only reiterating the law that either possession or admission of marijuana use by anyone coming into the United States could result in refusal of entry.
Of course, this could potentially be very bad news for the thousands of people directly employed by Canada’s legal marijuana industry. At the end of 2017, there were 2,400 people officially working in the medical cannabis industry, but full legalization is sure to cause this figure to skyrocket. For reference, Canada had 55 licensed producers at that time; fast forward a little over nine months, and that figure has increased to 129.
Canadian Cannabis Workers Denied Entry into U.S.? The Law is Clear as Mud…
All in all, there has been little (or nothing )done to clarify the issue. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Canadians working in the industry “will generally be admissible” if they are coming to America on for leisure purposes. However, they may be barred if they are traveling for specific marijuana-related reasons.
As cannabis is still federally illegal, you can technically be classified as a drug trafficker if you work in the Canadian weed industry. Although the above CBP statement (which was only released this week) was about as “clear as mud” (in other words not clear at all), it was an improvement on a previous statement which offered absolutely no guidance.
For Canadians, the whole ordeal is a flashback to 2003 when the Bush administration made serious threats against Canada if its government legalized or even decriminalized weed. America threatened to search every single Canadian vehicle that crossed the border; had this happened, it would have taken hours to get through the border, complicating a process that usually only takes a few minutes.
Mike Farnworth, the solicitor general for British Columbia, spoke about his concerns. He is worried that B.C. government employees could be banned from traveling across the border because they work in the new B.C. legal marijuana branch. He says there are hundreds of employees at risk, including front-line staff, managers, and even ministry officials.
A potential ‘cover’ is to drop the word ‘cannabis’ from B.C.’s new stores, and employees would have to pretend they work for the province’s liquor branch.
Although Farnworth refused to confirm whether this tactic would be adopted, the fact that it is even open for consideration speaks to the ludicrous situation at the American-Canadian border.
I Work for the Canadian Cannabis Industry – Will I Be Barred Entry into the US?
If you are a Canadian cannabis sector employee and have been banned at the U.S. border, you have the option to apply for a ‘waiver.’ It will cost you approximately $930, though, and is something that you’ll have to maintain and update every few years for the rest of your life.
It is far from a straightforward process, however, and the situation is unlikely to escalate to such drastic measures. One Vancouver woman spoke to a Canadian news outlet about her experience, saying she had to get letters of reference from important community members and her employer just to fill out the waiver.
Perhaps you can see the catch-22 nature of the waiver application process; you are being barred because you are employed in the marijuana industry, but the waiver application involves showing proof of where you are employed.
The whole situation is a paradoxical; you’re barred entry for working in the weed industry, but in order to obtain a waiver, you need a letter of reference from your employer — who works in the weed industry!
As for whether you are asked about your profession, it seems to be a case of luck. Most reports suggest that travelers into the United States are asked what they do for a living. Refusal to answer the question (or lying about your employment status) means automatic refusal of entry, but for cannabis employees, so does answering the question honestly! Saunders suggests that Canadians in the marijuana industry should say nothing about cannabis if they are asked any questions about their employment.
Annamaria Enenajor, a criminal defense lawyer who works in Toronto, says the opposite. She points out that because you are considered an ‘inadmissible alien’ under U.S. law, the CBP can lawfully turn you away from the border – AND hit you with a life ban. The same punishment applies to anyone who invests in a cannabis company, or admits to using weed.
Despite the potential for a lifetime ban, Enenajor advises people to tell the truth about their involvement in the marijuana industry. She says it is “incredibly dangerous” for anyone to lie about their work in the cannabis sector; mainly because it is easy to find information about a person online.
While you may or may not get banned for admitting your role in the weed industry, you WILL be heavily punished for lying to a border official.
Grant McLeod enjoys a high-ranking role at Beleave Kannabis, and has been in the United States on multiple occasions since beginning his career in the marijuana industry. While he admits to “feeling less confident travelling to the United States,” he says he has always disclosed his employment each time he crossed the border, and has yet to be turned away.
Other Canadians, of course, have not been so lucky. Incidentally, Enenajor is the campaign director for Cannabis Amnesty, but has yet to travel to the United States since she took up her role, and thus can’t comment on her own personal experience at the border.
So What Does the Future Hold?
Saunders has laid the blame mostly at the door of the Canadian government. He says that they failed to alert their citizens to the dangers they would face when entering the US, and also says that America is doing nothing more than enforcing its federal laws. The situation is such that several members of the Canadian cannabis industry have refused to take part in interviews out of fear of being exposed — and susbequently banned.
According to Marc Lustig of CannaRoyalty, a cross-border cannabis company, things are not as bad as the press is making it out to be.
He is confident that, eventually, common sense will prevail when the fear on both sides of the border finally settles. Unfortunately, this is a process which could take some time – a luxury that most businesses (on either side of the border) don’t have.
All in all, the possible legalization of marijuana in more American states could hasten the process of evolving U.S. customs practices. During this year’s midterm elections, the issue of whether to legalize cannabis will be decided in Michigan, Utah, Missouri, and North Dakota. It is likely that at least one, if not more, of these four states will vote in favor of the herb.
Eventually, the American government will have no choice but to ease Canadian fears at the border. Until that time, it is anyone’s guess as to how many Canadians will be banned entry.