Feds clear the air on crossing border after Canada legalizes marijuana

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Christopher Perry, director of field operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, stressed that those who are caught at the border with marijuana are subject to arrest and prosecution.

Detroit — Even with marijuana now legal in Canada, the U.S. border crossing remains a drug-free zone where pot is illegal, U.S. federal officials said on Wednesday.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials invited Michigan and Canadian media to the border crossing site in Detroit on Wednesday to reiterate that marijuana remains illegal under U.S. federal law and that those who are caught at the border with pot are subject to arrest and prosecution.

The news conference, at which border officials answered multiple questions about the impact of legalization for U.S. citizens, Canadians and other foreign nationals, was held the same day Canada became the largest country with a legal national marijuana marketplace.

Christopher Perry, director of field operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Michigan, said with legalization in place in Canada, it is important to continue to educate and inform travelers of the laws when crossing into the United States from Canada or other countries where marijuana is legal.

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection enforces the laws of the United States, and the U.S. laws have not changed following Canada's legalization of marijuana today," Perry said.

Perry also said nothing changes if Michigan voters approve recreational marijuana on Nov. 6. Voters will decide whether to allow marijuana use by adults 21 and older.

"Nothing changes. It is illegal to possess, sell and distribute marijuana in the United States. Federal law will not change," he said. "Federal law supersedes state law."

Crossing the border or arriving at a U.S. point of entry in violation of federal law, may result in denied admission, seizure, fines or apprehension.

Asked about traveling to and from the U.S. and Canada with marijuana, Perry said "in general the transportation of marijuana to Canada and from Canada to the U.S. would be illegal in both countries," Perry said.

This prohibition applies even if you are authorized to use cannabis for medical purposes, no matter how much cannabis you have with you and even if you are traveling to or from an area where cannabis has been legalized or decriminalized.

If you are entering Canada, and you have cannabis with you in any form, you must declare it to the Canada Border Services Agency.

"Not declaring cannabis in your possession at the Canadian border is a serious criminal offense. You could face arrest and prosecution," according to the government website on the matter.

Perry said 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.

"However, if a traveler is found to be coming to the U.S. for reasons related to the marijuana industry, they may be deemed inadmissible," Perry said.

Reporters asked U.S. officials if a Canadian traveler crossing the border into the United States is asked if he or she ever consumed marijuana and answers yes, will he or she be allowed entry.

"It's a case by case decision based on what is presented to the officer," Perry said.

Agents with U.S. customs and border protection can ask Canadians whether they have ever used drugs. If they say yes or refuse to answer, they can be barred from entering the United States for life, CBP officials said.

"It comes down to the totality of each case. If they don’t want to answer questions, we can't deem them admissible to the United States," CBP spokesman Kris Grogan said. "It's about being forthright and honest with us."

In the case of a U.S. citizen asked about drug use, if they say yes or refuse to answer, Grogan said that person could be sent to secondary inspection for further questioning.

"But we cannot refuse admission to a U.S. citizen," Grogan said.

Perry said U.S. officials are not changing the types of questions they ask at the border.

"The questions we asked yesterday are basically the same types of questions being asked today," he said. "We generally are not asking routine questions about people's marijuana use."

Asked Wednesday about the prosecution of marijuana cases at the border crossing on the U.S. side, Matthew Schneider, the U.S. Attorney in Detroit, said "Canada’s decision to legalize marijuana does not change the laws of the United States.”

It is not a federal crime to be under the influence of marijuana, said Gina Balaya, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Michigan's law on impaired driving includes drivers with any amount of a Schedule 1 controlled substance — including marijuana —  even if they show no signs of impairment. The only exception is an individual who has a valid medical marijuana card and is driving with marijuana in his or her system.

Details about legalization in Ontario were posted on the government's website on Wednesday.

The legal age to buy, use, possess and grow cannabis in Ontario is 19 or older. This is the same as the minimum age for the sale of tobacco and alcohol in Ontario. 

A person can possess a maximum of 30 grams, about one ounce, of dried cannabis in public at any time.

Cannabis can only be purchased online through the Ontario Cannabis Store OCS.ca. Consumers will be required to verify their age to accept delivery and no packages will be left unattended at the door.

The Ontario government has proposed legislation that, if passed, would provide the rules for using cannabis, both medical and recreational.

Proposed locations where you could smoke and vape cannabis include:

  • Private residences (not residences that are also workplaces)
  • Some outdoor public places, such as sidewalks and parks 
  • Designated guest rooms in hotels, motels and inns 
  • Residential vehicles and boats that meet certain criteria, such as permanent sleeping accommodations and cooking facilities and are parked or anchored 
  • Scientific research and testing facilities if the cannabis use is for scientific research and testing purposes

Controlled use is proposed for long-term care homes, certain retirement homes, residential hospices, provincially funded supportive housing and designated psychiatric facilities or veterans’ facilities.

Places where cannabis use would be prohibited under the law include: enclosed public places and enclosed workplaces; schools and places where children gather and hospitals; hospices, care homes and other facilities; publicly owned spaces, such as sport fields, nearby spectator areas and public areas within 20 meters; and some vehicles and boats.

No marijuana stores will immediately open in Ontario, Canada. The most populous province is working on its regulations and doesn’t expect stores until the spring.

Canadians also can order marijuana products through websites run by provinces or private retailers and have it delivered to their homes by mail.

Alberta and Quebec have set the minimum age for purchase at 18, while others have made it 19.

A patchwork of regulations has spread in Canada as each province takes its own approach within the framework set out by the federal government. Some are operating government-run stores, some are allowing private retailers, some both.

Canada’s national approach has allowed for unfettered industry banking, inter-province shipments of cannabis and billions of dollars in investment — a sharp contrast with national prohibition in the United States.

Nine U.S. states have legalized recreational use of pot, and more than 30 have approved medical marijuana. California, the largest legal market in the U.S., earlier this month became the first state with a law mandating expungement of criminal convictions for marijuana-related offenses that no are longer illegal.

Canada has had legal medical marijuana since 2001, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has spent two years working toward expanding that to include recreational marijuana. The goal is to better reflect society’s changing opinion about marijuana and bring black market operators into a regulated system.

Uruguay was first was the first country to legalize marijuana.

The Associated Press contributed.