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Why Is it Still Illegal to Visit the US if You Admit to Using Drugs?

Every foreign visitor is asked "Are you a drug abuser or addict?" before being allowed to enter the United States, and in 2015, answering "yes" means automatic rejection.

Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz

Shaun Shelly was looking forward to speaking at the annual International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Washington, DC, this month. The 48-year-old is the founder of South Africa's first harm-reduction program aimed at fighting HIV in injection drug users, and he was glad to have been invited to discuss the deleterious global influence of America's harsh drug policies at a major international meeting. (Full disclosure: I am also an invited panelist).

Unfortunately, those same US policies mean that Shelly is physically barred from coming to this country to speak out against them. That's because rather than hiding his past methamphetamine problem, Shelly made the mistake of telling the truth during his visa application interview. Immediately, he was told that his drug use meant that he was ineligible for entry. "I was absolutely shocked," he tells VICE.

America's last three presidents have all explicitly or essentially admitted to marijuana use. President Barack Obama even copped to trying cocaine, and there has long been speculation that George W. Bush did the same. The psychedelic use of tech giants like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates is well known, and addiction is so common among celebrities that there was even a (awful) reality rehab show about them. In fact, more than half of adult Americans under 65 report having tried an illegal drug at least once—and this rate ranges from 23 percent to about 40 percent in most countries that send tourists and business travelers here.

Nonetheless, every foreign visitor is asked "Are you a drug abuser or addict?" before being allowed to enter, whether applying for a visa or filling out an online "waiver" form that reduces red tape for citizens of friendly regions like Europe. And a yes answer means automatic rejection, an archaic and absurd legacy of the war on drugs that encourages deceit and breeds cynicism on the world stage.

In practice, then, the people who primarily get rejected over drug use are those who are honest...

It doesn't help that the question doesn't bother to specify what is meant by "drug abuser," or what types of drugs count. Nor does it clearly distinguish between those who experimented, those who are currently addicted, and people who have recovered. "I find this absolutely ridiculous and archaic," Shelly says. "I know people who have gotten into the US who have written books about their addiction."

What's more, there is no reliable way for customs officers to check whether applicants are being honest. Many countries don't allow American border control officials instant access to their law enforcement databases; many criminal records (particularly old ones) aren't even in searchable databases. National and local laws about drug possession vary, and most drug use doesn't result in arrest, let alone conviction, anyway.

So a healthy chunk of the 74.8 million annual foreign visitors to the US are almost certainly being admitted illegally. According to information sent to VICE by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) division, on a typical day in the most recent year available, the agency "processed 992,243 passengers and pedestrians to the United States, refused 366 inadmissible persons and arrested 22 wanted criminals at our ports of entry."

In practice, then, the people who primarily get rejected over drug use are those who are honest—and it doesn't matter whether it happened yesterday or 50 years ago, whether it was a few joints or 1,000 heroin injections, or even whether it resulted in arrest and conviction.

More rarely, a few folks are unlucky enough to get googled by a customs official who discovers an online "confession."

That's what happened to Andrew Feldmar, a 75-year-old Canadian researcher and psychotherapist who has two adult children living in the US. In 2007, he drove to the border to visit a friend in Seattle, after years of uneventful crossings. But this time, he was randomly selected for additional screening. Using Google, a border guard discovered an article he'd written for a journal that described two psychedelic experiences, which he'd had three decades earlier. After being held for several hours, he says, Feldmar was told that he was inadmissible because of his "narcotics" use and sent back to Canada.

The therapist is still incredulous about the experience, which has made it difficult and expensive for him to see his kids and speak at American conferences ever since. His article did not tout irresponsible drug use, and in fact, he's long been involved in helping addicted people recover.

That didn't matter. Although there are processes by which border rejections can be appealed, the easiest one leads to a visa that must be renewed annually. Getting the paperwork completed often takes six months or more; even Customs concedes the process that the process is "lengthy and there is a cost per application regardless of the decision on the application." Those costs come to $200–$300 each time, according to Feldmar.

And the unusual nature of his travel documents means that every border crossing comes with extra scrutiny. "Even with the visa, at every point I'm being detained and treated very slowly," Feldmar says. "I never know if I can make my connection. And it's continual harassment along the way."

Feldmar could apply for a permanent waiver of this special visa requirement, which would end the annual fees and routine. But that would entail an even more expensive legal proceeding, which could take several thousand dollars in lawyers' and application fees, regardless of whether it's successful. And it would also require him to get a letter from an addiction expert stating that he has been "rehabilitated."

"I find it extremely insulting," Feldman says. "Rehabilitated from what? Since 1968, I have been working with people, helping them to get rid of addictions. I never had any addiction. To ask my colleagues for this... It's deeply insulting."

Ironically, Feldmar often visits the US to speak at conferences about the use of psychedelic drugs in therapy, including the treatment of addiction and alcoholism, where they have shown promise. He's about to publish a study in which he gave MDMA—a.k.a. ecstasy or molly—or placebo to patients in therapy who were suffering from intractable PTSD.

The Canadian government trusts Feldmar enough to have given him its first license to legally distribute MDMA for therapeutic use. But the United States still insists that the septuagenarian shrink is a danger to the citizenry because he might not have "recovered" from his acid trips 40 years ago.

VICE asked the Office of National Drug Control Policy (better known as the drug czar's office) for comment on Shelly's case and the law in this area. Drug Czar Michael Botticelli is a recovering alcoholic: His admission to occasional marijuana and cocaine use as well would mean that he himself would not be allowed entry into the country because of his past—were he not already an American citizen.

Since he has spoken widely about fighting the stigma associated with addiction and because he advocates reducing barriers to rehabilitation, I was curious about Botticelli's views on this practice, which seems to punish both honesty and recovery. But his office declined to comment.

Which leaves me to wonder: What is the purpose of such laws, given that they can only be enforced arbitrarily and do not even distinguish between "youthful experimentation," hardcore addiction and recovery? With states and countries increasingly moving towards marijuana legalization, will changes be made, at least for that one drug?

There's no reason to believe America is safer when we exclude or harass foreigners who are honest about drug use—and that's the only thing this policy achieves. Foreign visitors spend some $221 billion annually visiting our country: Would we really want to cut that amount massively if we actually could find a way to successfully exclude anyone who ever smoked a joint?

This is one more ludicrous legacy of America's lingering drug war insanity. We should reward recovery and honesty—and stop lying to ourselves that it is possible or even desirable to get rid of drugs and the people who use them.

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