With Canada on the verge of legalizing marijuana for recreational use (it has been approved for medical purposes since 2001), Canadians studying in the US or abroad, and the half million international students enrolled in Canadian colleges and universities, need to understand the rules about what is or is not legal usage, and how a little carelessness in their travel habits can ruin or seriously disrupt their academic careers.
Because the bulk of Canada’s population is clustered close to the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, weekend or short vacation trips across the border (such as student spring breaks) are an integral part of college life—for international as well as domestic students.
Canada is the only G7 country to be legalizing cannabis products containing THC (tetrahydrocannabinol—the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) for purposes other than medical use. Though eight states in the US claim to have done so (including California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Maine, and several others) there are some points about regulations and distribution methods that are still being refined. And there are several more states (including Florida) that have allowed use of cannabis products by prescription for a small number of specified conditions but have not approved legal use beyond that.
First, there is the border
However, it’s essential to recognize that before you can get to a state that allows pot to be sold over the counter, you have to cross the US border, and that is federal property. So far as the US federal government is concerned, any cannabis products—and that means even ones devoid of THC content—are considered Schedule 1 Controlled Substances and cannot be prescribed for any medical use. And they certainly can’t be used recreationally. Period.
Remember also that Canada’s Cannabis Act provisions apply only in Canada and they forbid taking any cannabis or cannabis product out of the country at the risk of criminal prosecution, meaning the possibility of jail time.
To date, President Trump has assured at least one governor (Colorado) that his administration will not prosecute states for legalizing cannabis for medical purposes, a sign that keeping cannabis illegal is not one of priorities.
What does this mean for Canadians?
If you’re visiting the US, even for a short shopping trip, you might be at risk if you are taking any cannabis products—even ones as benign as the cannabidiol oils being sold easily over the Internet for a whole range of discomforts—and even if you have legitimate prescribed cannabis that is required to treat a medical condition.
It may be legal in Canada, and it may be legal in California or Nevada. But you need the approval of the US Customs and Border Protection agent who looks you in the eye and asks if you have ever used marijuana or have any cannabis products (i.e., oils, gummies) in your possession or in your luggage, or plan to purchase or use any form of cannabis while in the US.
Understand that border agents have a job to do. They also have a lot of discretion about letting you into the country. There are some who may ask if you have ever smoked a joint, and if you admit it they can turn you around and send you home. And they can do that with no questions asked, just as they can deny you entry if they are convinced you have no means of supporting yourself while in the US for a prolonged period, of if they sense you are spending more of the year in the US than in Canada—which is against immigration law.
On the other hand, there are many who may not be as strict. But who knows?
Even worse, however, is for you to get caught carrying any such products, or that perfectly legal 30-gram bag of weed—legal in Quebec, but not in South Carolina. That would be a felony. And we don’t need to warn you about those consequences.
Our advice: Wait until you get back to Canada to take that medication that relieves your painful knee, or that otherwise uplifts your spirits
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