As recreational marijuana became officially legal in Canada last year, it is surprising and potentially concerning to learn that yet another Canadian has been banned from the US for life after a 37-year-old marijuana possession conviction caused him to get stopped at the border. This will be the third Canadian reported to be banned from the US for a cannabis-related reason since legalization last October.
Mark, who didn’t want to provide a full name for professional reasons, told Global News that he received the conviction 37 years ago, in 1982. A police officer had approached him and his friends when they had broken down during a snowstorm on Highway 401, on a road trip to Montreal. He said “I remember that we were a little afraid in the sense that, ‘Is the car going to be OK? Are we going to make it all the way to Montreal?”
The officer noticed rolling papers in the front seat of the car and found two joints in the front passenger seat visor, which Mark says belonged to a friend. Then 18-year-old Mark was arrested for possession of marijuana and he attended court shortly after, where he received a conditional discharge. He said “I didn’t need to do anything. I just needed to stay out of trouble for a year.”
Until very recently, Mark maintains that he’d had no trouble crossing the U.S. border before, despite visiting the U.S. on many occasions. However, during a border-crossing on the Niagara River just a few weeks ago, Mark told Global that he was stopped by a border guard and faced an interrogation.
Mark said that the guard asked him numerous times if he had ever been arrested. He said “I never even thought of that time when I was 18 years old, 37 years ago. Never even crossed my mind until he started pushing it and pushing it.” Shortly after, Mark was photographed and fingerprinted by border control and then banned for life from the United States.
According to Global News, the reason that decades-old marijuana convictions are being newly scrutinized at the border is that the data connections between Canadian and U.S. border officials are getting stronger, and paper records that were long forgotten in archives have been newly digitized. This could be concerning news for many Canadians, as it is thought approximately 400,000 Canadians have Prohibition-era records for simple possession of marijuana.
Although it is possible to apply for a waiver after being banned from the U.S. the process can be expensive and complicated. Immigration lawyer Len Saunders confirmed that an applicant would need two letters of reference from reputable members of the community, a letter of remorse and proof of employment or retirement and approximately $3,400 to cover all of the legal fees.
The regulations are also unusual as people with convictions for other crimes, such as driving offences, are able to move freely across the border. Saunders said, “They let in people with DUIs, dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death, but because a controlled substance violation is a crime involving moral turpitude, you’re barred for life for something you did back in your 20s, which is now legal.” Saunders explains.
Although marijuana use is now completely legal in Canada, U.S. federal law bans “abusers” of all drugs from entering the country, regardless of whether it was legal in the country it happened.
For travellers heading across the border this summer who are worried about their records, an article from Forbes says "The best advice for anyone in any way related to the Canadian cannabis industry under these circumstances is to avoid mentioning marijuana in any way while entering the United States."
However, if you have a cannabis conviction on your record, you will want to apply for a waiver to have any hope of making it across.