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Woman Banned from US After Border Agent Finds Proof of Drug Use on Phone

US border officials searched her phone, finding a story about how she almost died after ingesting fentanyl she thought was cocaine.

Allison Tierney

Allison Tierney

Photos via Pexels.com

A British Columbia woman was issued a lifetime ban at the US border after officials found an email with her doctor about a fentanyl overdose she survived a year ago.

Chelsea, 28, whose last name is being withheld due to fears that it could affect future employment, answered a series of questions about drug use while attempting to cross the Washington-British Columbia border. She said her phone, which didn't have a password, was searched for about two hours. During questioning after her phone was searched, she admitted to using illegal drugs before, including cocaine.

At the US border, the searching of electronic devices, including smartphones, is allowed as part of inspection. Warrantless searches on phones are also allowed at the Canadian border—a practice defense lawyers are trying to end.

"It was super violating—I couldn't believe they went into my sent emails folder and found something from a year ago that was addressed to my doctor," Chelsea said. "It was really humiliating, and it felt terrible having to bring that up."

In the summer of 2016, Chelsea accidentally ingested and overdosed on fentanyl. While at a strip club celebrating a friend's birthday, a woman she was hanging out with offered her a bump of what she thought was cocaine. While the other woman died from an overdose that night, Chelsea was rushed to the hospital, narrowly surviving.

When she came to, she was strapped to a hospital bed, her shirt was cut open, and she'd been revived using the opioid overdose antidote naloxone. At the hospital, they told her she did not have cocaine in her system—only fentanyl. The dealer who'd provided the drugs that night also overdosed and was hospitalized.

Chelsea was forever changed by the incident. She had previously experimented with party drugs, but after almost dying, she swore off drugs completely. She posted her story publicly on social media and encouraged people to share their stories in order to warn others about the dangers associated with drug use. She had hoped to save lives by sharing her story.

A year later, the same story, which she had also sent her personal doctor in an email, was found by US border officials.

Photo of transcript

Chelsea was taking the bus to Washing with her boyfriend to celebrate his birthday by going to a Deftones concert when she was taken in for additional questioning at the border. The couple had booked a hotel to stay in for the weekend.

She had visited the US since surviving her overdose and had even had her phone searched previously at the border in April 2017 when she was allowed entry for a concert. When she got pulled in for secondary questioning this July, she thought it might have been "a mistake."

A transcription of the questioning Chelsea went through in July was obtained by VICE Canada.

Chelsea admitting that using illegal drugs was ultimately the reason why she was issued a lifetime ban from the US. Border officials referred to the email she sent to her doctor about overdosing on fentanyl during the questioning, which pointed to the fact that even though she accidentally had taken fentanyl, she had intended to do cocaine.

"I woke up in the hospital, I almost died, it was terrible," Chelsea told the officer questioning her when asked if she'd ever used fentanyl. "I was told that my friend had died from an overdose, and that was also the reason I was in the hospital."

"So you haven't used it since?" the official asked Chelsea, to which she said "no." He then asked if she was referring to the same story she had sent a doctor in an email.

After already detailing the overdose she survived, Chelsea was asked questions about an abusive relationship she'd previously been in.

"That part actually made me start crying because… Is that any of your business? My past abusive relationships? I couldn't believe that." Officials had found a reminder in her phone detailing relationship "rules" an ex had required her to abide by.

After about an hour of answering personal questions, Chelsea was banned from entering the US. She must now get a waiver in order to reenter, a process that requires hundreds of dollars, paperwork, and months of wait time.

Len Saunders, a lawyer with Blaine Immigration, said that "they pretty much can do whatever they want at" a US port of entry. He said he's dealt with US border officials going through his clients' email correspondence with him. Chelsea was banned because she had admitted to using illegal drugs before, but if she had denied using, she could have been committing fraud or misrepresentation since officials had already gone through her phone and found evidence.

"They'll go into the back and kind of go on a fishing expedition for a number of hours [on a smartphone] to see if there's any incriminating information," Saunders said. "If there is, then they're basically screwed."

Saunders said that if Chelsea had a password on her phone, she could have declined to put it in when asked by officials. However, that would have likely ended up with her being turned away from the border that day.

When contacted by VICE about the incident, US Customs and Border Protection provided a statement that read as a copied and pasted list of policies, including "foreign nationals may be inadmissible into the United States if they are found to be drug abusers or addicts."

Chelsea wasn't addicted to drugs; she had only experimented with substance use before, making the term "abuser" appear ill-fitting, too. But because she admitted to using illegal drugs previously—even though she doesn't anymore—she'll likely be dealing with the consequences of a ban from entering the US for the rest of her life.

Canadians have also reported being banned from the US for admitting to smoking weed before. Since Trump has taken office, he's promised to crack down on border security, including the controversial "Muslim ban."

Waivers that temporarily allow entrance to the US like the one Chelsea is currently trying to obtain only last one to five years, so she'll need to get a new one every so often if she plans to keep visiting the States. Waivers cost $585 to apply for and take about six months to be issued.

Chelsea wants to warn others about how deeply they'll search smartphones at the US border. Even in the context of North America's current opioid crisis, which is killing thousands annually in the US and Canada, no extra compassion was given to someone who accidentally ingested fentanyl and nearly died from it. Instead, her story was used as potential evidence against her.

"I understand why they banned me… But it sucks that they used my warning story about doing drugs against me," Chelsea said. "How ironic."