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Trevor Hughes


USA TODAY

Published 6:05 AM EDT Oct 17, 2018

VANCOUVER, Canada – Marijuana legalization across Canada has prompted widespread fears that U.S. border guards will block Canadians working in the cannabis industry from traveling south into the United States, even into states that have also legalized pot.

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol can permanently bar visitors if an agent decides they’ve participated in illegal drug trafficking – and under CBP rules, anyone working in Canada’s legal marijuana industry fits that definition. 

The rule doesn’t apply to U.S. citizens but has sent shivers through the fast-growing Canadian cannabis industry, especially as the country rolls out national legalization starting Wednesday. The border rule is also troubling many U.S. business owners who depend on Canadian customers to buy gas, groceries and clothing south of the border, local officials say. 

“It’s become a very significant issue,” said Scott Bettridge, an immigration attorney and chairman of the law firm Cozen O’Connor in Miami. “They’ve confirmed that if you work in the industry or even an investor, you could potentially face a lifetime on entering the U.S. This isn’t a ban just on businesses travel – we’re talking vacation, family reasons, visiting your kid in school in the United States. It’s a lifetime ban. It’s very far-reaching.”

Just how many Canadians could be affected is uncertain. As of the end of 2017, the Canadian government reported that only about 2,400 people were directly employed by the medical cannabis industry, but noted that the pending legalization of recreational marijuana was likely to grow rapidly.

At the time that survey was conducted, the country had only 55 licensed marijuana producers. There are now 129 licensed producers — and that doesn’t include those awaiting approval to sell recreational marijuana. Additionally, it’s unclear if a contractor who installs marijuana growing equipment, an angel investor or a government employee who oversees marijuana retailers could be affected.

U.S. officials say Canadians working in the cannabis industry “will generally be admissible” if they’re simply vacationing in the United States, but may be barred if they are coming for any marijuana-related reason, which could include conferences, investment meetings or visiting a colleague’s store south of the border. Bettridge said that guidance has to be considered in conjunction with the Trump administration’s tough new border policies. Many Canadians have been horrified to see how the U.S. government has recently treated immigrants and refugees, including young children who have been separated from their parents, and are prepared to assume the worst.

Bettridge said he’s been contacted by people who thought they would be permitted under the CBP rules but were instead barred due to their participation in Canada’s existing medical marijuana system. 

“It’s illegal in the U.S. And theoretically that makes you a drug trafficker,” he said.

The fear is real for many Canadians, who still remember in 2003 when President George Bush’s administration threatened to search every vehicle entering the United States if the Canadian government decriminalized or legalized cannabis, which would have created massive backups at a border that people can usually cross within minutes. Under U.S. federal law, lying about your identify, history or background can itself be grounds for a lifetime border-crossing ban.

Several Canadians working in the cannabis interviewed for this story declined to comment, citing uncertainty and fear that speaking publicly could get them permanently banned by the Trump administration, which would affect their future career prospects and personal travel.

“It very quickly became apparent that I have investors who are terrified,” said April Pride, the founder of the cross-border women-focused cannabis firm Van der Pop.

Not everyone believes the sky is falling at the border, however. Marc Lustig, CEO of cross-border cannabis company CannRoyalty, said his company is carefully monitoring the situation and making sure everyone who does cross does it properly. He said it may simply take time for fears on both sides to settle.

“I’m skeptical about some of the stories and how they’ve been presented in the press,” he said.

Just south of Vancouver, retailers and government officials in Bellingham, Washington, are nervously awaiting the fallout. About 50 percent of shoppers in the surrounding Whatcom County are from Canada, so anything that delays border crossings could have a major impact on the economy. Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said she thinks the U.S. government either needs to legalize marijuana or clarify that states can do it on their own with guarantees they’ll be left alone.

And today, most of the marijuana bought at cannabis stores appears to be flowing north across the border, from Washington, where it’s legal for adults to buy, into Canada, where no legal stores are yet operating in the Vancouver area.

“Most of the Canadians I meet are trying to figure out how to take it home,” said Rick Pierce, a budtender at Evergreen Cannabis in Blaine, Washington, in sight of the border. “It’s legal on this side, it’s going to be legal on that side. They’ve just got that one space where they can’t do it, at the border.”

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