American boarder agents have started asking foreign visitors about their cannabis history – and it’s getting honest Canadians banned for life
The border guard’s question surprised Jessica Goldstein: “Have you ever used drugs?”
It was 2013, and Goldstein, a 30-year-old Canadian from the Vancouver area, was on her way to a Dave Matthews concert in Washington State, passing through the Peace Arch border crossing between the United States and Canada. She’s done this countless times before and had never been asked about her narcotics history. The inquiry seemed especially odd considering the setting: With its picnic tables and grassy fields, the Peace Arch port of entry looks more like a park than a high-security border crossing.
So she told the truth: She used marijuana about once a month. She was, after all, traveling into Washington, whose voters had legalized marijuana the year before. Her boyfriend at the time had recently been asked the same question at the border, and when he’d admitted to smoking pot, agents had thanked him for being honest and let him through. But the guards had a different reaction to Goldstein’s response. They detained and interrogated her for six hours, then told her she’d been deemed inadmissible to the United States, a status that would likely stay with her for the rest of her life. “I was being treated like a criminal when I didn’t do anything wrong and was just being honest,” she says.
It wasn’t a mistake. According to a statement from Customs and Border Protection spokesman Jaime Ruiz, “A violation, conspiracy to violate, or simply an attempt to violate any U.S. state, federal, or any foreign government controlled substance law renders a foreign national inadmissible to the United States.” That means, as per immigration law, if a foreigner tells border agents that he or she has consumed or plans to consume marijuana, even in jurisdictions where it’s legal, the result could be banishment from the country for life. While the law has been on the books for years, the little-known rule has become a growing problem as states like Washington, Oregon, and Colorado have launched recreational marijuana markets and folks become less reluctant to admit to using cannabis. Matters will surely become even thornier over the next year, as two more border states, California and Maine, launch recreational cannabis programs and, more pressingly, Canada moves toward legalizing marijuana nationwide.
That means there could soon be a lot more Canadians and other foreigners who find themselves barred from the United States for admitting to something they figure is perfectly legit. And once that happens, the only way for them back in is by applying for an inadmissibility waiver from the U.S. government. To do that, Goldstein and many of her countrymen are turning to one individual in particular: Len Saunders, a small-town immigration lawyer in Blaine, Washington, who’s become the go-to guy for Canadians who unexpectedly find themselves turned into international pot pariahs.
“For me, it’s definitely a booming business,” says Saunders. The Canadian-born attorney, who attended Pepperdine School of Law in California and has dual citizenship, had no intention of becoming an expert in marijuana and immigration law. He simply saw an opportunity to set up a law firm specializing in immigration issues in Blaine, the nearest border town to the Peace Arch port of entry, the third busiest crossing between Canada and the United States, and the busiest on the West Coast.
But business started to change after Washington began opening recreational marijuana shops in 2014. Blaine has always catered to Canadian consumers, since gas and groceries are cheaper in the States. Now it began drawing cannabis shoppers from north of the border, too. “I wouldn’t be able to survive here if I didn’t have international travelers,” says Jacob Lamont, owner of Evergreen Cannabis, a marijuana shop in Blaine. During the spring, summer, and fall, Lamont figures 70 percent of his business comes from folks coming through the Peace Arch crossing, which he can see from his parking lot.
But with those marijuana shoppers came border problems. Saunders began receiving more and more phone calls from Canadians who’d told border guards they’d tried marijuana or were planning to in Washington and had been deemed inadmissible. “It used to be one or two cases like that a year,” he says. “Now I am seeing one or two cases a week.”
Those cases involve Saunders’ clients completing an extensive waiver application, undergoing a criminal-background check, presenting proof of employment, providing two character reference letters, and penning a letter of remorse. Then there’s the $585 filing charge, plus Saunders’ legal fees. The resulting waivers are only good for one to five years; Saunders says first-time applicants deemed inadmissible for marijuana-related activities always begin with a one-year waiver. That means after his clients receive their first waiver following the four- to six-month application processing time, they need to immediately start the process over again – and then again and again for the rest of their lives.