1976 was a year of “firsts” for Canada. It was the year that Canada hosted its first Olympics in Montreal, the year that the CN Tower first opened to the public in Toronto, and the year that the Timbit was first introduced, forever revolutionizing the bite-size confectionary market around the world. For Ontario senior Bev Camp, the year 1976 was memorable for personally-significant reasons. It was the year that he would be busted for the possession of cannabis.
In 1976, the possession and personal use of cannabis in any form was illegal. Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau, had largely ignored the conclusions reported by the widely-praised Le Dain Commission four years earlier. The Commission had advised the repeal of the prohibition of cannabis use, presenting a total of 365 submissions at large hearings that featured the countless passionate testimonies of prominent supporters, including that of Beatles’ frontman John Lennon.
Nearly 40 years later, Pierre Trudeau’s son, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, introduced legislation to legalize cannabis in Canada, and the Government of Canada announced it intended to grant pardons to Canadians who had been convicted of simple cannabis possession charges.
This past weekend, 43-years after he was nabbed for possession, Bev Camp - now 73-years-old and a London, Ontario resident - was denied entry into the US on the basis of that very conviction. According to the CBC, Camp was utterly dismayed when American Customs Agents denied his request for entry into the US on February 9th when he showed up at the airport.
Camp was en route to visit friends in Florida that he hadn’t seen for up to 50 years and had never visited before (due to impairments associated with Camp’s long-term mental health issues which disabled him from travelling). “[The conviction] was just so old and so small and so petty, I just thought, ‘Gee, who’s going to haul that up,” said Camp.
Camp remarks that the current border rules are unclear and “ludicrous”. “There’s no sense to it. You know you get some place and you have some faith that you’ve done everything right and made sure you have your stuff in the right place and you have your paperwork done.”
Camp –known as “the Dancing Cowboy” by family and friends - hadn’t encountered any problems with US Customs Agents when he crossed into Buffalo, New York in January for a concert. Yet on February 9th, after he had boarded a bus from London to Detroit, the customs officials at the US border who were conducting a luggage check refused to disregard the 1976 pot possession conviction. “It was really hurtful”, Camp commented. Camp has not had any trouble with the law since the minor conviction in 1976.
While medicinal and recreational marijuana has been legalized in Canada and some US states, the sale, possession, and distribution of cannabis continue to remain illegal under US federal law. A spokesperson for US Customs and Border Protection has confirmed that incidents such as Camp’s may indeed occur, as customs officers have the authority to question travellers about the use of illegal drugs during the inspection process.
"Possession and/or admission to the use of marijuana by an alien may result in the refusal of admission," a spokesperson has told reporters, indicating that a list of over 60 reasons – including prior criminal convictions – for denying entry exists and is available to the public.
"Any arriving alien who is determined to be a drug abuser or addict, or who is convicted of, admits having committed, or admits committing, acts which constitute the essential elements of a violation of (or an attempt or conspiracy to violate) any law or regulation of a State, the United States, or a foreign country relating to a controlled substance, is inadmissible to the United States," a spokesperson said.
In October, the Government of Canada released an online statement that addressed cannabis-related travel concerns. Canadians can apply for a pardon of their past cannabis possession convictions; however, the US does not recognize foreign pardons, according to US Customs and Border Protection.
As for Camp, his latest US border experience had completely changed his outlook on travel. “I'm an older man … It's a really big undertaking," he said. "Just getting out and going somewhere is a big move for me."
He confessed, "Truth be told, after this experience, I have no desire to go near a US border. I'm too traumatized by it. I won't even dream about it again.”
*Cover photo used for illustrative purposes only.