Pot will now be legal on both sides of the northern border, but taking it from one country into the other is strictly prohibited.
On Wednesday, Canada will become the largest country in the world to legalize cannabis. The move will not only drastically reshape marijuana in that country, but means that the entire West Coast — from Alaska to California — has become a marijuana marketplace where the formerly taboo drug is legal and commonplace.
Ahead of that shift, officials on both sides of the 49th Parallel are warning pot users not to get so comfortable they forget the border exists. Their message: Do not cross with cannabis.
What to keep in mind when you’re crossing the border:
Eight million people passed through Washington’s five crossings with British Columbia last year. Pot will now be legal on both sides of those crossings, but the border itself is a no-weed zone and attempting to take cannabis from one country into the other is strictly prohibited.
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In a recently issued statement, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol reiterated that it enforces federal law, which still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug. American and Canadian border agents have broad discretion in whether they ask about marijuana, search vehicles or pursue charges for people who get caught with pot.
Brandon Lee, consul general of Canada in Seattle, said people should be especially careful when traveling by ferry or road because they may forget they’re in possession.
“B.C. and Washington — we’re so close, even personality wise, culturally,” Lee said. “If people are cannabis users here or in B.C. … they may have some in their car.”
In a report this year, the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University wrote that as legalization spreads, “there is a growing misconception in Cascadia about the legality of cannabis,” including people not realizing pot is illegal at the northern border. If that continues, the report said, it could take longer to cross the border as more agents are tied up questioning people about pot or searching vehicles.
Laurie Trautman, director of the institute, said some young adults in northern Washington may not remember a time when marijuana wasn’t at least semi-legal. (Washington first legalized medical marijuana in 1998.) “My biggest fear, really, is you have kind of a younger generation that doesn’t really know that marijuana is illegal in the United States,” Trautman said.
British Columbia Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said new signs near Washington/B.C. border crossings will remind people not to travel with pot. “If you don’t bring drugs across the border, you’re going to be just fine,” Farnworth said.
It won’t be that simple for everyone.
Noncitizens who admit cannabis use to U.S. border agents have long faced potential lifetime bans from the United States. Saba Naqvi, a Vancouver-based immigration attorney, said there’s little indication American border agents will change that practice.
In a September statement, CBP reiterated that any noncitizen who is determined to be a “drug abuser or addict” or who admits to committing acts abroad that would be illegal in the U.S. could be barred from entering the country. The agency did offer a limited reprieve for people working in Canada’s new industry, though. People working in Canada’s legal marijuana market will be allowed to enter the U.S. for reasons unrelated to the industry, but may be barred from industry-related travel, the statement said.
“Lying [to border agents] can definitely have negative consequences and an impact,” Naqvi said, but “admitting to use can have a negative impact as well. [Canadians] need to seriously consider whether to attempt admission to the U.S. in this kind of climate.”
What to expect from Canada’s legal weed market:
Washingtonians traveling to Canada will notice key differences in the rules for buying and smoking.
While the federal government in Canada legalized the drug for anyone 18 or older, it allowed provinces to make their own rules, too. In B.C., the legal purchase age will be 19, compared to Washington’s legal age of 21.
Unlike Washington’s strict rules against public consumption, smoking and vaping will be allowed in most places in British Columbia where smoking tobacco is allowed. Some other provinces will be more strict. In B.C., that means most sidewalks are fair game, but playgrounds and public parks are off-limits, Farnworth said. Cities can add their own restrictions, too.
Canadians can have up to 30 grams of pot in public. That’s roughly equal to Washington’s one-ounce limit. Some provinces will restrict at-home possession. In B.C., the limit in a non-public place is 1,000 grams. Canadians will also be allowed to grow up to four plants per household. Home grows for recreational use are banned in Washington.
At first, recreational stores in Canada will sell flower, some oils and seeds. Edibles won’t be legal immediately but will be allowed within a year. Because Canada’s legalization is nationwide, marijuana businesses can access mail services, and some stores will sell online. Some in person and online stores will be government-run, like some Canadian liquor stores, and others will be privately run.
In British Columbia, one brick and mortar store in Kamloops and one online store will be licensed in time for the first day of legal recreational sales. The stores will be government-run.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated some of the new Canadian cannabis rules.