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CBSA stays quiet on how travellers should answer questions about cannabis at U.S. border, documents reveal

Part of cannabis laws and regulations

Canada Border Services Agency is more focused on telling travellers how bringing legalized cannabis in and out of the country will affect them, and not on highlighting the problems Canadians could face at the U.S. border if they admit to using the drug, according to documents obtained through Access to Information legislation.

Immigration lawyers have warned that Canadians crossing the border who work in the cannabis industry or admit to ever having consumed marijuana – even legally – could be facing permanent restrictions on travel to the United States. They have argued the federal government is not doing enough to address this issue ahead of legalization this fall.

Internal e-mails between CBSA officials last December show the agency did not plan to address a key question for Canadians who use marijuana: How should they answer questions about the drug when crossing into the United States?

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“I think people here are very much under the impression that the CBSA is developing public awareness/informational content that would address border crossing both ways, which I now understand is not the case,” reads an e-mail senior federal bureaucrat David Tousignant sent to the CBSA’s Giosafat Mingarelli on Dec. 13, 2017.

Last week, CBSA issued a news release aimed at British Columbians travelling to the U.S. for the long weekend, warning: “Cannabis. Don’t bring it in. Don’t take it out.” But the agency did not touch on the issue of how marijuana use in Canada could affect admissibility into the United States.

In response to questions about its strategy, a CBSA spokesperson referred to the federal government’s online travel portal, which warns Canadians may be denied entry to the United States for their admitted past use of cannabis or any other drug that contravenes American laws.

In recent months, several Canadians have spoken out about how they have been barred from entering the United States after admitting to using it or working legally in the sector, either with medical marijuana companies in Canada or firms licensed in one of the nine states that have legalized the drug.

Lorne Waldman, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer who testified on this issue before a Senate committee earlier this year, said Canadian officials need to meet with their American counterparts to try to see if they can come to some understanding on the issue.

“As a significant percentage of Canadians have tried cannabis, if the U.S. immigration officials enforce this aggressively then there will be a lot of Canadians who will be barred,” Mr. Waldman said. “In the end, it is a decision that the U.S. administration will have to make, but Canada needs to make its views known.”

Bill Blair, who recently moved from dealing with the legalization of cannabis to become Canada’s new Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, was unavailable to comment on the issue. A spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in an e-mailed statement that Ottawa has been clear with U.S. officials that it expects Canadians entering that country to “be treated fairly and respectfully.”

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“Canada has been engaging with U.S. officials to ensure that they understand the intent and effect of Canada’s new cannabis laws,” spokeswoman Hilary Peirce said. "Minister Goodale and his officials have discussed the changes to our cannabis laws in virtually every conversation that they have with their American counterparts, including the previous and current Secretary of Homeland Security.

“We want to make sure that the United States fully understands how we are changing the law and the reasoning behind it.”

Mr. Goodale was planning on bringing up border problems at a January, 2018, meeting with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, according to e-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail, but that meeting was cancelled on short notice.

Ms. Peirce pointed out that nearly 400,000 people cross the U.S.-Canada border every day in both directions with very few incidents despite the fact roughly one in eight Canadians use cannabis regularly. She reiterated that American border officials have sovereign jurisdiction to turn people away from entering their country for violating their federal drug laws.

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