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Canada Legalizes Recreational Marijuana, But What Does It Mean For Border Relations?


As of today, marijuana is legal throughout Canada, which raises a question - what happens when Canadians want to enter the U.S. given that marijuana is illegal in the U.S. under federal law? Yesterday, Customs and Border Patrol official Todd Owen held a conference call with reporters, who had a whole lot of questions, such as this one.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is it possible to be not let into the states by saying, yes, I did smoke a joint or I have smoked in the past?

TODD OWEN: Yes. Admission of illegal drug use are grounds to be found inadmissible into the United States, so, yes, that's possible.

KELLY: Reporters posed many scenarios, and Owen's answers were largely the same, that border agents have wide discretion and decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis. We've reached out to Len Saunders. He's an immigration attorney in Washington state, and he has clients who've been denied entry into the U.S. because of past cannabis use. Len Saunders, welcome to the program.

LEN SAUNDERS: Thank you for having me on.

KELLY: So you listened to that whole conference call yesterday. What struck you?

SAUNDERS: Well, what struck me was even though it was the day before legalization of cannabis in Canada, CBP still has not given a straight answer on whether they will admit to the United States Canadians who admit to purchasing and using cannabis legally in Canada as of today.

KELLY: To be crystal clear on what the situation is - and maybe that's part of the challenge is it's not crystal clear what the situation is here - but there's going to be huge discretion given to individual border agents to decide how they want to proceed. Bottom line, if somebody has smoked pot legally in Canada, that's going to be an issue for them when they're - if they're asked about it trying to come into the U.S.?

SAUNDERS: Absolutely because even though it's legal in Canada and legal in Washington state where my office is, the officer has the discretion to determine that the individual could be a drug user or an abuser and deny them entry based upon that.

KELLY: So just to parse this out, there would be an issue about whether they have used marijuana, even if they were using it in a place that was legal. There would be questions potentially being asked if they have ever used marijuana and that could be grounds for barring somebody from coming into the U.S.

SAUNDERS: Absolutely, and a great example is Prime Minister Trudeau. He has admitted very publicly in the past that he has used cannabis prior to legalization, so he could be denied entry into the United States when he's no longer prime minister - because right now he has a diplomatic passport - and be deemed inadmissible even though it's legal as of today in Canada.

KELLY: And again, just to try to drill down on this, we're talking about a situation where it's legal in Canada, it's legal under where you are in Washington state under state law, but because federal - U.S. federal law prevails at the border, that's where we have the sticking point.

SAUNDERS: Exactly, and it's kind of a hypocritical situation by the federal government where they've taken a hands-off approach to states legalizing marijuana, like Washington state, but they use the full force of the U.S. government and immigration laws to keep out undesirables, you know, people who have used cannabis whether it's legal or not in Canada.

KELLY: I suppose from the CBP's point of view, they don't make federal law. They're tasked with enforcing federal law at the border. And marijuana is illegal under federal law. Taking that, what do you think that they should be saying? What rules should be put in place that would make this situation less chaotic going forward?

SAUNDERS: Well, I think the federal government has to have some common sense, so they need to have a consistent approach with the enforcement of federal laws. Either outlaw it in every state and be consistent with what you're doing at the border or do what you're doing at the border with what you've done in many states, which is take a hands-off approach unless it comes to your attention and you have, let's say, you know, a huge amount of contraband on your vehicle or on you. Who cares if a Canadian admits that they've used marijuana legally in Canada? Who cares?

KELLY: Len Saunders - he's an immigration attorney in Blaine, Wash., talking about the legalization of marijuana today in Canada and what problems that might cause at the U.S.-Canada border. Mr. Saunders, thanks for your time.

SAUNDERS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.