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Why Are Travelers to Canada Asked to 'Declare' Cannabis Products?

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Sign at the Canadian border - JOHN JAMES
  • John James
  • Sign at the Canadian border

Drivers heading north from Vermont into Canada may have noticed that, just as they're about to cross the international border, signs in English and French announce, "Attention! All cannabis products must be declared."

What exactly does it mean to "declare" that one is entering Canada with a cannabis product, and what are the ramifications for doing so? Are ganja-toting travelers required to pay a Canadian import duty the way they would on, say, a carton of cigarettes, a case of Scotch or a truckload of American plywood? Does the Canada Border Services Agency require that marijuana be inspected like other agricultural products such as cut flowers, fruit trees and animal semen?

Or are these signs a surreptitious way for Canadian authorities to stump the stoners, effectively weeding out motorists who are too high to keep quiet about their contraband cannabis? WTF — or, as our francophone friends in Québec might say, C'est quoi ce bordel?

At first blush, one might assume that crossing from Vermont into Québec with a spliff or a bag of bud wouldn't be an issue. After all, Vermont and Canada both legalized the possession, use and transport of cannabis in 2018. Canada's Cannabis Act granted all 10 provinces and three territories the authority to set their own rules regarding when and where the green stuff can be consumed and sold. For simplicity's sake, this column discusses primarily Canada-wide laws and the provincial laws of Québec.

First, the most fundamental question: Is it ever legal to enter Canada with weed? Nope, not even if you're traveling from one of five U.S. border states where recreational, adult-use pot is also legal: Alaska, Washington, Maine, Michigan and Vermont.

Tim Fair is an attorney and partner with Vermont Cannabis Solutions in Burlington. Occasionally he represents clients who've run afoul of U.S. or Canadian marijuana importation laws. Contrary to popular misconception, he explained, declaring one's skunky stash to border agents, whether American or Canadian, is essentially an invitation to make your life miserable. And, to add insult to perjury — if said traveler gets caught lying to border agents about possessing marijuana — failure to disclose one's dope is considered a crime in itself.

As for possible legal repercussions, Fair continued, they can run the gamut, from a minor inconvenience to a lifelong hassle.

"You could be declared inadmissible [that day]. You could be banned for life. Or you could be arrested and charged. That will depend on the agent you are encountering, as well as the quantity of cannabis," he explained. "If you're talking about a single joint, you probably won't be arrested, but I doubt you'll be getting over the border anytime soon."

Another potential ramification: The Canadians and Americans may also revoke any trusted-traveler program you participate in, such as NEXUS, which gives prescreened travelers expedited processing when crossing the border.

It's also not legal to enter Canada transporting medical marijuana, even when said traveler possesses a state-issued medical marijuana registry card. And it's not just cannabis products containing altered state-inducing levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that will get travelers in Dutch with the Canucks. Products with cannabidiol (CBD), a nonpsychoactive cannabinoid, are also banned.

Indeed, even if you declare your CBD-infused gummy bears, dog treats, face masks or suppositories, Canadian border agents will confiscate them anyway and probably won't let you in. There's also a good chance, Fair noted, that they'll pull you aside and have you park in the "not-so-fun spot" for a more thorough inspection of yourself, your fellow travelers and your vehicle.

Once inside Canada, however, the rules mellow considerably. As long as you don't violate Canada's maximum possession law by carrying more than 30 grams in public — for U.S. tokers hazy on the metric system, that's roughly an ounce — you should be just fine.

Provided, that is, you don't get caught buzzed behind the wheel. Whether it's booze, herb or other intoxicants, Canada has a strict zero-tolerance policy for impaired motorists. If cannabis is at all detectable in a driver's saliva, he or she faces a serious fine, possible jail time and a lifetime ban from the country. Also, as of January 1, 2020, the legal age to possess, purchase and consume the sticky stuff in Québec goes from 18 to 21.

So, where do American cannabis consumers find legal weed north of the border? Unlike Vermont, Québec has established a regulated market via the government-owned Société québécoise du cannabis, which has a monopoly on the sale of all recreational weed within the province. And now that Canada's chronic shortage has subsided, according to a November 1 story in Marijuana Business Daily, the SQDC has opened at least 12 cannabis dispensaries and expects to have 20 fully operational by year's end.

But don't bother going online to browse the merchandise in advance, at least from a U.S.-based computer; the SQDC website doesn't work outside of Canada. Why? Because Québécois dispensaries also sell their products online.

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