Canada has legalized cannabis, but confusion over the laws beyond our land could be a buzzkill.
The only country Canada shares a border with, the U.S., still outlaws cannabis at the federal level, even though some states have legalized recreational use.
Even with a medical marijuana licence, it’s illegal for Canadians to take pot across international borders. Doing so could result in up to 14 years in prison under the Cannabis Act.
On top of that, you could be turned away from entering the U.S. if you admit to using cannabis or have ties to U.S. companies in the pot industry. However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently updated its policies to allow Canadians who work or invest in Canada’s legal cannabis companies to enter the country provided they are not there for work.
Canadians can also face a lifetime ban from the U.S. if they’re caught lying about their pot use or ties.
Here’s what else you can expect now that cannabis is legal in Canada:
Official border crossings
If you’ve been in a Canadian airport lately, you may have been greeted with signs reminding you that taking cannabis across international borders is illegal.
The new signs can been seen at major international airports, some railway stations and ferry and cruise terminals, according to Transport Canada, which says it is also working with provinces and territories to install road signs at land crossings.
The federal agency is also rolling out educational campaigns, which could be useful for some travellers, especially since the rules are different for domestic travel.
For those flying within the country, Transport Canada permits up to 30 grams in checked bags or carry-on luggage.
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Talking to U.S. border agents
Honesty is the best policy, according to Toronto-based immigration lawyer Joel Sandaluk.
“It’s very tempting to tell what a lot of people might say is a white lie,” he said, but doing so could get you banned for life from entering the U.S.
“Over the next coming years, the U.S. government may change its policy when it comes to the use and sale of marijuana products. What will never change is their policy with respect to making misrepresentations to immigration officers,” he said.
Even if U.S. laws change, a lifetime ban for lying at the border would likely still apply. If you’re banned for cannabis-related reasons, you may be able to apply for a waiver to gain entry to the U.S.
“It’s one of those things that if it comes back to you it can haunt you for the rest of your life.”
Border agents typically ask very direct questions, and that’s totally within their rights, according to Sandaluk. Questions about cannabis use, investments and work may arise, but there’s no specific trigger that might lead to such questioning.
“It’s one of those things that is probably unlikely to come up,” the lawyer said. “What happens is that officers at ports of entry have a broad range of discretion on the types of questions they can ask or the types of interest they can take in people.”
Todd Owen, a senior official with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told Politico officers won’t be asking every Canadian about cannabis, “but if other questions lead there — or if there is a smell coming from the car, they might ask,” he said.
No ‘right’ to crossing borders
You can always go back home.
Overall, your rights are very limited at the border, Sandaluk said. Border agents have wide powers to ask questions and search you and your property, be it a suitcase, a car or a cellphone. If they ask for the password to access your phone and access is refused, officers can confiscate the device.
“There is very little you can do in order to prevent that from happening. Other than saying, ‘It’s fine. I’m withdrawing my application for admission. I’ll turn around.’ And that’s it.”
He stressed that anyone crossing an international border must be mindful of the gravity of the situation.
“When you approach a foreign country and ask for admission, you’re seeking a benefit, you’re not asserting a right,” Sandaluk said.
States don’t control borders
That also applies to states where marijuana is permitted. The U.S. border is a federal matter and state laws do not apply there.
“Even though some states permit non-medicinal use, you still have to gain admission to the United States,” said Sandaluk. “In order to gain admission, you have to deal with the U.S. government, which is responsible for border enforcement.”
The border can be a challenging place to cross even for U.S. citizens, the lawyer explained.
“A lot of Americans have similar problems attempting to enter Canada with firearms,” Sandaluk said. “Where you have these cultural differences between Canada and the United States, there is sometimes a conflict of laws. Culturally, something [that] feels very normal in Canada might be very different in the United States.”
There are some circumstances when cannabis products are allowed to cross the border. For more information, visit the federal government’s information bulletin on importing and exporting laws.