As the owner of an events company doing business with Christmas festivals in the U.S., Jonathan Houweling crosses the Peace Arch border in Surrey, B.C., dozens of times a year without issue.
But during his latest trip on Nov. 7, he was chosen for a random search, where a border agent found an old bottle of cannabidiol oil, or CBD oil, in his centre console. He had tossed it there in 2019, he says, and completely forgot about it.
Now that lapse has resulted in a lifetime ban from entering the U.S.
As cross-border travel returns to pre-pandemic levels, the experience serves as a cautionary tale for Canadians travelling to the states, where the sale, possession and distribution of marijuana are illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Despite cannabis being legal in Washington state, the borders are regulated federally, and federal laws supersede state laws.
"It's embarrassing. It's like a dark cloud," said Houweling, who is from Langley, B.C., about 51 kilometres southeast of Vancouver.
When recreational cannabis was first legalized in Canada, many residents found themselves facing similar bans.
Houweling says he spent many hours at the border being searched, questioned, and fingerprinted. He was required to submit a DNA swab. He was also fined $500 US.
In a statement, Rhona Lawson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Customs Border Protection (CBP) said it "enforces the laws of the United States and U.S. laws will not change following Canada's legalization of marijuana.
"Determinations about admissibility and whether any regulatory or criminal enforcement is appropriate are made by a CBP officer based on the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time."
CBD is a non-psychoactive chemical found in marijuana. It's not a controlled substance in the U.S., as long as it contains less than 0.3 per cent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the principal psychoactive compound found in marijuana.
Houweling says an agent told him the CBD oil tested positive for THC, although he claims they didn't provide proof despite multiple requests for it.
The lifetime ban will likely put an end to his business, he adds.
"I simply can't see a way to make it work in the future if I can't be there in person. It would have to fold," said Houweling, who was travelling for Christmas festival contracts in Chicago and New York, which were opening Friday.
He says he has already felt business contacts pull away.
"I understand," he said.
"They can't associate a family-friendly oriented Christmas festival with someone like myself who has this lifetime ban."
Border agents are 'judge, jury and hangman': lawyer
Since the border re-opened, Washington-based immigration lawyer Len Saunders says he hears from Canadians in similar situations weekly.
Houweling says he knows it's illegal to bring controlled substances into the U.S., but he wishes CBP agents are able to use more discretion when dealing with Canadians who have made an unintentional mistake.
But that's not an option, says Saunders.
"It's the laws that they're following and, unfortunately, there's really no discretion," he said, adding that when it comes to the border, Canadians aren't entitled to a process of law.
"These officers are judge, jury and hangman.
"They are able to use their U.S. immigration laws … and use it widely," Sauders said.
"Whether your trunk is full of hundreds of pounds of marijuana or there's a minute amount in your car or your cosmetic bag."
Houweling has since applied for a special U.S. entry waiver for people who are inadmissible to the U.S., which cost $585 US.
He says he can't help but feel the U.S.'s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act at the border fails to achieve its intended purpose.
"I often think, is America safer now that I'm not permitted there for the rest of my life?" Houweling said.
"I don't think it is."