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Cannabis Issues When Entering the U.S.

In addition to this page, read our page on Cannabis at the U.S. Canada Border for detailed advice on how to handle your border inspection.

Like all matters involving criminal records, a conviction for cannabis /drug offences will often lead to denial of entry into the U.S. The push to legalize cannabis does not really change what happens if you have a criminal conviction. You should read our Criminal Records section if you need detailed information on this subject.

You are also likely be turned away at the U.S. border – and possibly arrested – if you have pot in your vehicle when you try to enter the U.S. Cannabis, and any paraphernalia used to consume drugs, is illegal under U.S. federal law. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operates under U.S. Federal law.  If you are caught with even with a small amount of marijuana, it will be confiscated, and you could face thousands of dollars in fines. The amount of marijuana you have, and whether it is concealed, will determine whether they seek even stronger penalties like jail time. If you are caught with more than what would be considered personal use, you will definitely end up in the U.S. legal system.

  • It does not matter if both Canada and the U.S. state you are entering have legalized marijuana. U.S. state law is irrelevant in this matter.
  • It does not matter if you have a prescription for medical marijuana.
  • It does not matter if it is “your” pot – or someone else’s in the vehicle.

It is important to realize that, at the border, U.S. Customs officials are both judge and jury.  They have almost complete discretion to admit, or bar, you from entry into the U.S. How they view cannabis issues, and what actions they may take, will vary between officers.

One interesting tidbit is that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection claims you are under their jurisdiction even if you are not on federal land or entering a border inspection booth. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has asserted the right to search vehicles as much as 100 miles from the border. The key is whether you have the “intent to go foreign”.

How to Answer the Question “Have You Ever Smoked Pot?”

CBP officers may profile you and then ask you whether you have used cannabis before. If you say “yes”, you may be turned away at the border. U.S. federal law says that someone is inadmissible to the U.S. if they have either been “convicted of” or “admits having committed” a violation of drug laws in the U.S. or elsewhere. In other words, if you admit to drug use, that is grounds to turn you away, and maybe give you a ban on ever entering the U.S. Not every officer will ask the question, and some officers may have a much tougher response than others. As a result:

  • Do not even joke about drug use.
  • It does not matter if you say this was a long time ago. There was a case where an individual was turned away from the U.S. border, and barred for life, after a border guard searched his name on the internet and found that he had written in an academic journal about using LSD in the 1960s.

You have 4 options to the question: “Have You Ever Smoked Pot”

  1. Lie
  2. Tell the Truth
  3. Refuse to Answer
  4. Revoke Your Request to Enter the U.S.

Lie?

If you lie about your past pot use, be aware that the consequences are likely to be very harsh if you’re caught in the lie. You could face up to a lifetime ban on ever entering the U.S. again. If you receive a shorter ban, your immigration record will always show that you lied to officers. This will likely lead to extensive interrogation at the border for the rest of your life. This will be true even if the U.S. later decides to stop asking about marijuana use.

There are lots of ways that U.S. border officials may uncover your deception. CBP officers are entitled to use any documentary evidence to confirm your statements – whether in print, online or on social media, in text or image. It can be on the internet, your phone, or laptop. Read our page on Border Searches to get a clear idea of the extent of the border patrol’s search powers.

There are also questions as to whether U.S. Customs Officials may be able to get access to Canadian information about the purchase and sale of recreational cannabis. Records of customer purchases, and information from the many companies in the distribution network, will be kept in a wide variety of Canadian databases. In addition, the U.S. Patriot Act permits border officials to access information like credit card data.

Tell the truth?

As of this writing, you will most likely be turned away at the border.  However, times change, and it is possible that at a later date the U.S. will no longer ban pot smokers.  For example, if the U.S. ever legalized marijuana, then a mark on your record that you admitted smoking pot may no longer be a problem. Compare that to the lifetime of issues you will have if you are caught lying to border officers.

Refuse to answer?

You have no legal obligation to answer any questions put to you by a border officer.  However, you are also likely to be refused entry into the U.S. and flagged in the CBP database with a “lookout”. This would likely result in closer scrutiny during your next border crossing attempt. You need to decide if being turned away on this one trip is better than being barred for life.

Revoke your request to enter the U.S.?

You have the right – at both land crossings and in pre-flight clearance – to revoke your  request to enter the U.S. if you do not wish to answer questions posed by Customs Officers. However, like a “refusal to answer,” you will likely be flagged in the Customs and Border Protection database which may mean closer scrutiny during your next border crossing attempt. Again, like the “refusal to answer”, you need to weigh this against the risk of being caught lying.

Searches at the border

We have another page with much more information on searches at the U.S. Canadian border, but the main point is that at any border crossing checkpoint, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have the power to conduct a search of your car, yourself, your passengers, and everybody’s possessions – without a warrant. These search powers extend to electronic devices like phones, tablets, laptops and hard drives.

If you have private information on your electronic devices that do you not want searched, you should either remove the information, or leave the device at home. Some experts recommend carrying a burner phone, but, if you have already been profiled and deemed somewhat suspicious, carrying a burner phone will likely increase the officer’s suspicion. For any electronic device, you would be best to turn if off as you approach the border.

Problems If You Work in the Cannabis Industry

As of this writing, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has declared that “A Canadian citizen working in or facilitating the proliferation of the legal marijuana industry in Canada, coming to the U.S. for reasons unrelated to the marijuana industry will generally be admissible to the U.S. However, if a traveler is found to be coming to the U.S. for reason related to the marijuana industry, they may be deemed inadmissible.”

Customs officers can ask you whether you work in the cannabis industry and, as we have already explained, you need to be very careful about how you respond. If you say no, but the officer is suspicious, they can  search for you on the internet. If you have an online presence in the marijuana industry they may find it. They can seize and search your phone or laptop without a warrant, so your contact information will jump out if it references the industry.

What Can You Do If You Are Deemed Inadmissable?

You can in fact enter the U.S. despite inadmissibility issues. The most common approach is to apply in advance for a “waiver of inadmissibility”. Waiver requests are judged case-by-case and often depend on the reasons for travel. The application fee is around $1,000 and the process can take up to a year. The waiver may be good for a year, or perhaps longer, depending on the discretion of the approval officer. When the waiver expires, will have to re-apply and pay the current fee.

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