Pot puzzles Canadian travellers

Issue 215 | December 2018
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Canada’s full legalisation of marijuana began with a lot of hoopla and no small amount of confusion, as hundreds of thousands of law-abiding citizens lined up for hours before midnight in each of the nation’s six time zones to buy their first ever legally-sanctioned, government-approved ration of pot. Milan Korcok has the details
 
The date will go down in history – 17 October 2018 – as the first time any G20 nation embraced full marijuana legalisation. It will also be remembered by Canadian consumers as a day of foul-ups, with
stores running out of product within hours, shipments running short and behind schedule, police shutting down unlicensed stores, and coincidentally-scheduled rotating postal service strikes crippling online pot deliveries, to the frustration of impatient consumers.
As deliberately as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government planned for an organised launch of its cardinal legislative achievement (leading up to next year’s national election), it found to its dismay that pioneers not only get glory, they often discover contingencies they didn’t expect. And with Canadians being inveterate travellers, as well as some of the developed world’s most committed marijuana users (40 per cent claim some history of use, and 10 per cent have used it within the past year), expectations were high.
with Canadians being inveterate travellers, as well as some of the developed world’s most committed marijuana users, expectations were high
Now it’s time to put those expectations in perspective – the main message being that legalisation is a domestic issue: to be kept at home. It doesn’t travel well. If you’re leaving the country (no matter which country), all bets are off. In short – no cannabis out, no cannabis in. When travelling out of the country, leave your stash at home. 
 
No exceptions
This holds just as true for hundreds of thousands of Canadians on medical marijuana registry lists who have been authorised by their physicians to receive cannabis medications under the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations. Medical marijuana has been available under an earlier set of regulations since 2001, but the new cannabis law puts patients who travel in a paradoxical bind, as it stipulates: “Carrying any cannabis product (legal or illegal) across Canada’s border will remain a serious criminal offence, with individuals convicted of engaging in such activities liable for prosecution.” That means the possibility of jail time.
Given that more than 80 per cent of Canadians in most age groups buy private, supplemental medical insurance when they travel out of the country, the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada (THiA) has been on the front line explaining the new rules, and some of their idiosyncracies, through the nation’s media.
more than 80 per cent of Canadians in most age groups buy private, supplemental medical insurance when they travel out of the country
Citing results from a recent travellers’ survey produced by THiA, the Association’s outgoing President and current Executive Director Will McAleer noted that 22 per cent of survey respondents believe they can pack their medical marijuana in carry-on baggage just like any other prescription drug, regardless of where they are travelling.
The survey also shows that almost 34 per cent of boomer-age (born between 1946 and 1964) survey respondents are unaware that they can run into serious problems at the US border if they are travelling with marijuana that is legal in their province, to a state where it is also legal. At present more than half of all states have legalised marijuana to some degree – some (among them Florida, New York and Arizona) only for medical use, others (among them California, Hawaii, Nevada, Washington and Massachussetts) for recreational use as well.
The ban on travelling with marijuana will affect senior Canadians especially heavily, as they constitute the legions of snowbirds who travel south at the first hints of winter and nestle mostly in Florida, Arizona, South Texas and California for up to 182 days per year (the maximum allowed by US immigration rules).
Because many of them travel on medically-underwritten policies, with six-month supplies of authorised medications covered by their provincial insurance, they will be unable to continue their regimen of cannabis medications and, as a last resort, may have to contact local physicians authorised to prescribe them. If they can make such connections, they will have to pay both for the physicians’ assessment and for medications prescribed.
 
The law’s the law
US federal law controls the nation’s borders. And federal law decrees that all cannabis products, even those devoid of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol – the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) are classified as  Schedule 1 Controlled Substances (no currently accepted medical use and high potential for abuse), and cannot legally be brought into the country. That includes cannabis-laced cookies, gummies, beverages, even THC-free oils and tinctures sold over the counter and online for aches and pains.
Once in the states of their choice, Canadian travellers can be guided by local laws. And for those needing cannabis products for therapeutic purposes, there are dispensaries prepared to guide them through the process of being assessed and put into the charge of a physician registered to prescribe cannabis. It may cost around CA$200 to $250 for the assessment and some substantial amounts for the medications, but that’s a far smaller payout than being caught bootlegging one’s own medications from Canada.
 
A pot prototype for the US?
In the American media, Canada’s legalisation process has received even more attention, space and airtime than the fractious free trade negotiations between the US, Mexico and Canada. In addition, Canadian cannabis production and distribution companies with billion-dollar-plus valuations are traded on major US exchanges and are ultimately designed to feed and nourish American cannabis commercial enterprises once the federal restraint on marijuana is eased or eliminated – which even die-hard opponents of legalisation admit is all but inevitable. The size of the Canadian marijuana market may be respectable, but it pales in comparison to the potential market in the US and Europe, all of which are scrutinising how Canada handles its rollout. 
It’s worth noting that one of the US Congress’ strongest opponents of marijuana legalisation while he was Speaker of the House, Congressman John Boehner, is now, after retiring from the government, the highest profile pro-legalisation advocate in the US, having joined the board of directors of Tilray, the hottest recent entry to the roster of cannabis companies in North America.
Boehner, notorious for his chain-smoking (tobacco) while Speaker, has declared himself ‘all in on marijuana’ and has been joined on Tilray’s board by former governor of Massachussetts Bill Weld –whose state has recently gone legal for recreational as well as medical use. 
 
Border officials deny hardline interrogations
Recently, media on both sides of the border have floated stories claiming that Canadian cannabis industry workers, or even cannabis investors, have been targeted by US Customs and Border Protection officers and barred from entering the country. Other reports have speculated that CBP agents will be interrogating Canadians about their history of marijuana use and sending them home if they get the wrong answers.
Border officials, aware that tourism from Canada contributes some $20 billion to the American economy annually, have tamped down such fears, but where the decision to allow entry to any applicant is left to the discretion of an individual officer operating within general guidelines, it’s hard to convince some southbound travellers that they are immune from intrusive interrogation.
In response to concerns about cannabis workers visiting the US, the CBP website has confirmed that so long as these workers are visiting for non-cannabis purposes, they are welcome in the US  The advisory states: “A Canadian citizen working or facilitating the proliferation of the legal marijuana industry in Canada, coming to the US for reasons unrelated to the marijuana industry, will generally be admissible to the US; however, if the traveller is found to be coming to the US for a reason related to the marijuana industry, they may be deemed inadmissible.”
CBP officials interviewed by various media have also left a pretty consistent message – although not a formal policy statement – that border agents are not going to interrogate all inbound Canadian visitors about their marijuana use histories but might ask them if they intend to buy or use marijuana while in the US and warn them of the potential consequences. However, they will always be expected to practice due diligence if they sense a situation calling for it – a clear message that approaching a border control point with a vehicle reeking of pot might be unwise for any traveller seeking permission to enter.
reports have speculated that US Customs and Border Patrol agents will be interrogating Canadians about their history of marijuana use
For Canadians, who must deal not only with US laws but their own, there are only a few straightforward rules to commit to memory:
Taking marijuana or any cannabis product that may be legal in Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia or any other province out of Canada is a criminal offence, subject to prosecution. That includes any cannabis-derived medication legally authorised or prescribed by a doctor in Canada.
If you can smoke it, eat it, drink it, or spray it on any sensitive area of your body and it contains or is derived from cannabis, you are not allowed to take it across the US border, even to a state where it’s legal, even if it’s the hottest new product circulating among fashionable millennials in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York or Miami.
If you locate a really exotic brand of marijuana buds or cannabis oils at an unbelievably low price at a shop in Colorado or California and you’re dying to share it with your friends in Calgary, suppress your urge. Canada’s law forbids it and you could go to jail.
 
It’s simple really: No cannabis out, no cannabis in. When travelling out of the country, leave your stash at home. 
No exceptions.