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Know Your Rights: US/Canada Border Crossing 101

July 12, 2017

That invisible line separating Canada from the United States can sometimes seem like a wall—especially when it comes to cannabis. Wildly different enforcement practices at the US-Canadian border can leave travelers in a haze: Americans traveling to Canada are more likely to be asked if they are packing heat than whether they light up, while Canadians can be banished from the US just for admitting to past marijuana use. Things will likely grow even cloudier as Canada prepares to decriminalize cannabis next year.

Len Saunders is a US immigration attorney in Blaine, WA, with an office less than four blocks from the Canadian border. Before Washington State legalized recreational marijuana, he was getting one or two marijuana-related calls a year from Canadians. These days, he gets that number in a week. Here are his suggestions for people traveling to the US-Canada border—from any direction.

Know the Law

Medical marijuana is legal in Canada and recreational marijuana is not, although that prohibition is largely unenforced. Meanwhile, medicinal marijuana is lawful in the District of Columbia and 29 of the United States, including in eight states where it is also legal for recreational purposes and in 12 of the 13 states that share a border with Canada. But cannabis remains illegal in any form or quantity under US federal laws and the federal government—which controls all land, air, and sea borders—bans the stuff regardless of what state law says. For all these reasons, marijuana is simply not allowed across the border—from either side – whether medically prescribed or not.

Marijuana is simply not allowed across the border—from either side—whether medically prescribed or not.

As for the ramifications of being caught: US visitors entering Canada with any quantity of cannabis will likely be turned away at the border. They may try again another day, though they shouldn’t be surprised if they draw added scrutiny.

Far harsher consequences await Canadian visitors caught bringing cannabis into the US, or even those who simply admit to having used it. Not only are they denied entry by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, they may also be deemed inadmissible to the US, and essentially banished. That’s significant if coming to the US in the future, for any reason—business, work, a Disney vacation—is important. Cannabis-packing Canadian border-crossers can also be fined, apprehended, or both.


How to Stay Legal at the Border and Beyond

Obviously US citizens returning home can’t be denied entry, but they, too, can be fined. Non-citizens, however, face possible deportation. For immigrants who live in the US, being caught with marijuana or admitting to using it can affect future applications for citizenship or legal permanent residency. “A Microsoft employee on a work visa who is caught at the border with weed? He’s basically screwed,” as Saunders puts it.

Past run-ins with the law will also hurt. Canada and the US share criminal databases, the resting place for old convictions that will most assuredly lead to inadmissibility on both sides of the border.

But it doesn’t have to come to that. If all goes well, a stop at the border will involve nothing more than a primary inspection and a few questions from the officer about where you live and what your plans are. How you answer those questions may well determine what happens next. “Unless your passport is flagged, your primary inspection should last about a minute or less,” points out Alex Stojicevic, a Vancouver-based Canadian immigration attorney. Any number of factors can get you sent into secondary inspection, where “they can find out everything about you that’s available in a government database in under 10 minutes. You should behave as if you know that can happen.”


Under Trump, Legal Cannabis Is a Deportable Offense 

Mind What You Say

Canadian officials won’t interrogate visitors about their marijuana use. But it’s not uncommon for US border officers to ask visitors if they use marijuana or are coming into the states to buy it. Saunders said he’s amazed how many people answer “yes”—to their detriment.

“It’s like asking about your sex life,” says Saunders. “There are some questions that are simply none of their business.” To be fair, not every officer will ask the question, and the level of scrutiny around weed is discretionary, with some crossings and officers far stricter than others.

Saunders said travelers should admit they are in possession of cannabis when they are, or that they’ve been charged in the past with a marijuana-related crime when they have, since a database search will reveal both. But when asked about personal cannabis use, he suggests visitors avoid lying by telling the agent they prefer not to answer. They’ll probably be denied entry anyway, just as they would if they said yes, Saunders says. But it at least it wouldn’t be compounded by also being barred for life.

“A Microsoft employee on a work visa who is caught at the border with weed? He’s basically screwed.”
Len Saunders, US Immigration Attorney

Hopeful development: In a recent letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and US Department of Homeland Security division heads, 18 Democratic members of Congress raised concerns over the devastating penalties for visitors and US immigrants who may be unaware of the disparities between federal laws and laws in states where marijuana is legal. They urged them to instruct their officers in states where marijuana is legal not to ask visitors and residents about their use or possession of marijuana, to develop policies for not penalizing them based on such behavior, and to build flexibility into guidelines for finding someone inadmissible because of it.

Prepare to Be Profiled

Border agents aren’t just listening to how visitors answer their questions; they are also looking for “tells.” One of Saunders’ clients, a wealthy 30 year old who owns a pair of dispensaries in Vancouver, was flagged crossing the border into the US after he pulled up to the booth in a new Ferrari. He was deemed inadmissible after admitting to prior use of marijuana. Along with your car, the way you look can also raise a red flag for U.S agents. As Saunders says, a “hippy look,” dreadlocks, or even a T-shirt sporting a marijuana leaf, might give CBP agents the impression you smoke, even when you’re telling them you don’t. “I frequently see young Canadians dressed as throwbacks to the 60s and 70s get sent inside [to secondary inspection],” says Saunders. “Rarely do I see a group of young professionals in business suits being questioned about marijuana use.”


ICE Uses a Cannabis Misdemeanor To Arrest, Deport

Check, Double-Check, Then Check Again

Being caught with cannabis can have devastating consequences, and you can never be too cautious. One of Saunders’ clients was denied entry and deemed inadmissible because he had forgotten about the three joints in his shirt pocket—until a drug-sniffing dog stopped at his car and started pulling on its leash. Another has been in a seven-year battle to regain his green card after officers found traces of weed on the floor of his car and he admitted that he’d smoked in the past.

Before heading to the border, clear any trace of marijuana from your vehicle, your purse, your wallet, your jacket and your pants pockets. Check for paraphernalia—discarded rolling papers under the floor mats or that neglected pipe in the glove compartment. Since officers are able to search your phone and explore your social media, scrub anything that can incriminate you, like that photo of you lighting up a spliff on Mt. Seymour.


A Guide to Canada’s Medical Marijuana Program

You’ve Been Busted and Banned. Now What?

If you’ve been deemed inadmissible by Canadian authorities based on a prior conviction, you have a good shot at a permanent fix. Depending on how long ago your conviction was, you can apply for criminal rehabilitation. And once you get it, it’s good for life.

The US government also allows those it has banished either because of a prior conviction or a bust at the border to waive inadmissibility. But a waiver is not quick, it’s not cheap and is something you’ll have to deal with for the rest of your life.

Canadians and other visitors who wish to continue traveling to the U.S. after being barred must submit the results of a criminal background check, proof of employment, two character letters, and a letter of remorse. The waiver will cost $585, take about six months to process, and will be good for 1 to 5 years. When it expires, you’ll have to do the whole thing all over again – for as long as you want to keep coming to the US.

Lornet Turnbull's Bio Image

Lornet Turnbull

Lornet Turnbull is a Seattle-based freelance writer who enjoys frequent, hassle-free trips to Canada. Follow her on Twitter @TurnbullL or email her:

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5 part series

  • Jones Able

    The USA has nothing I cant get in Canada, have no desire to cross the 49th again as long as I live. Spent 30+ years driving back and forth to USA, could relate some interesting incidents when crossing the 49th going south…..DUH shall suffice.

    • Anthony Socci

      Please don’t come back. I just read some of your previous posts, you’re a typical American hating Canuck who claims to have traveled through out the U.S for years. I suggest you keep your uneducated mouth shut since you don’t live here and have no idea what you’re talking about.

      • Richard Wilson

        I live here, Anthony, and and have lived here for the past 85 years, and I agree with Mr. Able. These are words coming from my educated mouth.

      • Bob Mann

        I’m an educated Canadian who has a lot of friends in the US. I visit a lot.
        While I wouldn’t say never again, I sure don’t feel particularly welcome these days.
        I will say though, I have had far more hassles returning to Canada than i have had entering the US.

        • Anthony Socci

          Let me ask you Bob do you think as an American I wouldn’t be harrassed in Canada? I’ve heard stories of Americans being harrassed by Canadians, also that Canada is anti American.
          I won’t say your claim about not feeling welcomed here is false, however I’ve heard nothing but positive things about Canada from Americans that can’t be said about what Canadians think of us.
          All I’m trying to get at no country is perfect, however acting like the U.S is a freaking third world country is absurd and that’s where I take offense with some of the OP’s prior posts.

          • Bob Mann

            I doubt either of us would be harassed in either country.
            I’ve never been harassed there and for the most part, Canadians are pretty accepting of everyone. I’ve always found individual Americans to be extremely warm and helpful.
            As for not feeling welcome, there is one man mainly responsible for that and people all over the world are feeling the same way. It’s not that I, personally, have been made to feel unwelcome, it’s that the atmosphere has changed
            I read an article a while back that said tourism in the US is down considerably so it isn’t just me.

          • Jim

            I have always, always felt welcome in Canada. It is one of my favorite lands and people in the world.

          • Jim

            To be fair Anthony. I have crossed the Canadian border many times, and have been harassed far more coming back into the US instead of Canada. Also, when getting my car searched/ripped apart et al, at least Canada had the courtesy to let me watch them search the car while the US made me sit in a separate room. I would have to say it is about the luck of the draw, but the Canadian side seems more fair, and yes they are strict to everyone. It is internationally known to be the case. Try getting into Canada with a DUI compared to the US. Best of luck. PS, most 3rd world countries and countries the US considers dictatorships treats you with respect at the border. Just saying.

          • Cortez

            Just out of curiousity – you state that you’ve heard nothing but nice things about Canada in the same comment in which you state you’ve heard Canadians harass Americans. As those statements are contradictory, it stands to reason that either one or both of them are false. Which is it?

      • Jones Able

        Don’t worry about me coming back…is not going to happen, no I don’t hate only dislike, and your country has a great deal to dislike about it. The sad part is I live next door to a “know it all”, ” traveled no where” flock of easily led know nothing sheep. Not to worry, for soon your country will “implode”, leaving the rest of us to clean up your mess. I have traveled a great deal and “do not” have to be afraid to say what country I come from, not like some people I know.

        • Anthony Socci

          Funny, I’ve been to Europe and Canada and never once hid from my nationality. Also you’re pretty stupid hoping we implode because if that happens you implode with us seeing as we’re one of if not your biggest trade partners. Europe and Asia implode as well, that’s the fun of living in a global economy.
          Referring to us as sheep haha, that’s funny I see I’m arguing with an uneducated moron. I suggest getting some education on the world and how it works, sad thing is I’m probably half your age and clearly more mature and I have a far better understanding of how the world works.

          • Jones Able

            Time will tell. have a nice day.

          • Anthony Socci

            I guess so, same to you as well

  • Gone Daddy

    I am always amazed that there are people who don’t seem to realize that border cops are big dummies who are paid to be skeptical of all you say. Say little, act “normal” and straighten up your look; these are cops, people!

  • Wyld Black Wolf

    the fact is that by this very law theyre being discriminatory as well as holding up families being reunited as well. by having such stupid restrictions on their borders its no small wonder im not looking forward to my trip to us because of the badge bearing bullying buggers down there. with VERY few exceptions both sides of the borders have official people who CAN NOT BE TRUSTED! yeah i’m talking about police bullying and brutality, the badge bearing buggers who get a kick out of persecuting people who just simply “don’t look right”. which is about 3/4 of the populace of the world these days. fact is about 98% of police force everywhere can not be trusted because of the individuals attitude. ban me for smoking pot? for taking a MEDICINE that covers a LOT of what id have to take half a pharmacy for??thanks but i’m not interested in the pill scene. just reminds me of the harder crap i got to live with in my building. that point aside. if these badge bearing buggers want to try pulling crap by being discriminatory, then what about us’s FINANCIAL SITCH??? if trump were to back the hell down and take 3/4 of the worlds supply of exlax then maybe things could be better between Canada and us. problem is there’s not enough laxative in the world to deal with that thing that you have for a president and police brutality can happen to anyone across the world.if you love your president then youre entitled to that opinion. but know that its not widely shared. not even CANADA’S prime minister cared to shake trumps hand. so what does that say. basically we Canadians are tired of having to act like the bigger brother/ cleanup crew that you’ve relied on for years. can’t handle the truth? too bad. i wont hold back when it comes to that and most the people here in canada who know me know i wont pull punches like that. im not unreasonable.. but if there’s a law that doesn’t make sense then i’m unlikely to follow it. like for eg.. no dancing allowed. well that’s just stupid and i’d dance anyway and didn’t care what the authorities think about it. how stupid is that law? VERY does us actually have that law in some states? YES! i mean c’mon guys. you could do so much better for a country.. but instead you’re still shooting yourselves in the nuts *SMH* as my avatar says. i don’t do stupid.

  • Ima Straight

    British Columbian people have usually been totally lovely to me and I sincerely hope Washingtonians are trying to be kind too. We’re neighbors.

    Everyone needs to remember that these border minions’ procedures emanate from power-mad, corrupt Washington DC, where prisons-for-profit are still quite acceptable. Enlightenment doesn’t break out spontaneously all over: it crops up and spreads. Just look at the progress of mixed-race marriage laws. There are some haters that will never ever get one clue and will continue to spread their hatreds to further generations. The progress of personal freedoms, and medical choices in care are similar. The willingness of many uneducated and unqualified bureaucrats to interfere in the medical business of total strangers is on par, IMHO.

  • Candice

    Hi Is it okay to take edibles into the US? Things like cookies, oil or pills?