Here's a Canadian public service announcement: don't ever tell a United States border guard you've smoked pot before. It doesn't matter if the last time you got stoned was hours ago or that one time in the ravine behind your high school—keep that shit to yourself.
Seems like obvious advice, sure. But for Vancouver music writer Alan Ranta, who was crossing from British Columbia into weed-friendly Washington State for a music festival a few weeks ago, he never thought such a harmless admission could get him banned from the US for life.
"We had nothing on us, but they did find a small purse that said 'weed money' on it," Ranta told VICE. "Ironically it never had weed or money in it."
After an intense search—Ranta guesses the guard didn't like the look of their "colourful camping gear"—he says he was handcuffed and pulled into a tiny interrogation room with a bench and a toilet. Then the guard started asking about his weed habits.
"I thought, Trudeau has said it's going to be legal in a year, and the state I'm going to has had it legal for three years—it didn't seem like that big of a deal," said Ranta.
Turns out, that's admitting to violating the Controlled Substances Act (weed is still Schedule I controlled substance federally) and immigration experts say admission is counted the same as a conviction. Who knew telling the US border you've sparked a joint is a lot like telling them you're an arsonist.
Ranta is now barred from entering the US, at least until he completes a lengthy, $589 waiver process, and even then he will forever be flagged as a criminal. "I'm stuck with this for life now," he told VICE. "The gravity of the situation didn't really sink in until after."
Lawyer Len Saunders has seen dozens of these cases over the last few years, all across the Canada-Washington border. Like Ranta, these Canadians are often held in an interrogation room for several hours, and asked to answer questions about their weed habits under oath. "I'm Canadian myself, and I try to warn Canadians that if you do this... if you admit at the port of entry, you're setting yourself up for a lifetime bar."
"What's shitty is it's almost like entrapment—you don't need to admit it. You're under no obligation to answer that question," Saunders told VICE. "Clients call me, they say they had to tell the truth, I couldn't lie. What I'll say is, change the question: what if they asked about your sex life? Would you be so forthcoming?"
Ranta says if he could go back, he would have said no or refused to answer. You can always "revoke your entry application" and try again later, he says. His decision to tell the truth in a "high stress situation" will haunt him for a long time coming. "It's pretty devastating. My family's had a cottage in Point Roberts, Washington for about 50 years, which is a place I feel connected to my dad who passed away 10 years ago. I try to go several times a summer if I can," he said. "I've also covered Sasquatch Festival for the last six years."
What's worse, this kind of dick move could become even more common once Canada legalizes weed, potentially as early as spring 2017. "If Canada legalizes, it's going to make it even worse—more are going to posses it and admit to smoking it," Saunders told VICE. "Some people say I'm fear mongering—I'm not. I'm saying watch out, it can cause you massive future entry issues."
Saunders says it could take the United States' legalization movement a decade or more to catch up. "I believe personally that the federal government is just going to be forced [to legalize]," he said.
Photo by Flickr user Chuck Grimmett
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