Senators fear legal pot will hike number of Canadians barred entry to U.S.

FILE PHOTO - This Feb. 13, 2013 file photo shows a marijuana bud at the grand opening of the Seattle location of the Northwest Cannabis Market, for sales of medical marijuana products.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Elaine Thompson

OTTAWA - Meetings with American officials have done nothing to calm the fears of Conservative senators that legalization of marijuana could exponentially increase the number of Canadians barred for life from entering the United States.

Indeed, Sen. Claude Carignan says the meetings have confirmed their suspicion that the Trudeau government has been playing down the potential impact of legalization on Canadians who try to cross the border.

Carignan, along with senators Denise Batters and Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, visited Washington earlier this week to meet with officials in the Trump administration, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, senior officials in Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, among others.

He says what the trio heard in Washington was quite different than the vague assurances offered by Canadian officials.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told a Senate committee last week there's no reason why legalizing marijuana in Canada should create headaches at the border.

He noted that it will remain illegal for Canadians to take cannabis across the border into the U.S., just as it will remain illegal for Americans to bring cannabis into Canada. Since that doesn't change, Goodale argued there's no need for U.S. border officials to tighten screening for Canadians coming into their country.

"Our fear is that the government minimized the impact on the border and I think that's the case," Carignan said in an interview after the meetings in Washington.

While 10 U.S. states have legalized cannabis, it remains a prohibited drug under federal criminal law. And it's the federal government that decides who gets to enter the country.

"For them, on the federal side, it's illegal and it will continue to be illegal," Carignan said. "They don't want to legalize and they will not go there and they will continue to fight against (it)."

In a statement released Thursday, the three senators said their consultations with American officials left them convinced that legalization will result in longer line-ups and delays for anyone crossing the border. And they said there'll be an increase in secondary inspections as sniffer dogs detect marijuana residue and odours, which could result in frequent travellers having their Nexus or Passexpress cards revoked.

Worse, they could be barred for life from entering the U.S., said another Conservative senator, Jean-Guy Dagenais, who met with a senior official at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa last week. Dagenais said the official warned him that Canadians who use cannabis or are involved in the cannabis business, however legally in Canada, could face problems crossing into the U.S.

Canadians who admit to ever having used marijuana, no matter how long ago, already face lifetime bans on entering the U.S. And senators, who are currently studying the bill that is to usher in the legalized cannabis regime this summer, have been warned by at least one immigration lawyer, Len Saunders, that the number of banned Canadians could skyrocket once legalization goes into effect.

Saunders, a Canadian who has practised immigration law in Blaine, Wash., for 15 years, said in an interview that when he first set up shop in the U.S. border town, he would see one or two cases a year of Canadians barred entry after admitting to a border officer that they'd used cannabis at some time in the past. They would come to him to apply for waivers that would allow them to enter the U.S. temporarily.

Once Washington became the first state in 2012 to legalize marijuana, Saunders said the number of such cases shot up to one or two a month. Now, as Canada is on the cusp of legalization, he said he's getting one or two cases every week and he predicts that will become "a tidal wave" once legalization actually goes into effect.

Saunders said the biggest problem will be Canadians operating under the false impression that American officials won't penalize them for admitting to cannabis use — or to any involvement in the industry — once it's legal in Canada.

On just one day this week, Saunders got a call from a Vancouver company who had three senior executives barred for life from entering the U.S. because the company sells a product used to trim marijuana plants. The executives didn't realize that selling that product — which is not in itself illegal — would tag them, in the view of border officials, as being involved in the drug trade, he said.

"All three of them were denied, all three of them were barred, all three now need a waiver. These are business executives."

Saunders is supportive of Canada's plans to legalize cannabis but he said the government needs to ensure that Canadians understand the potential consequences if they travel to the U.S.

He advises Canadians to simply refuse to answer if a border officer asks about marijuana use. They'll be denied immediate entry as a result, he said, but at least they wouldn't be banned for life and could try again with a different border officer at another time.

Dagenais said the government needs to launch an intensive public education campaign to make Canadians aware of the potential problems.


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