Immigration lawyer shares border wisdom for weed-savvy travel

Heather Segal spoke to cannabis professionals at Vancouver's first O'Cannabiz conference

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There is a lot of buzz around Canadians being banned for life from the United States simply for admitting to smoking weed—a substance legal on their home turf. Although some minor border penalties are avoidable with a white (nonetheless illegal) lie, cannabis-industry professionals are at a higher risk of complications due to their proximity to the plant.

Recently, Canadian lawyer Heather Segal presented on the issue during Vancouver’s first O’Cannabiz Conference (at the Parq Convention Centre from December 9 to 11). The immigration expert outlined tips and legal rights for travellers navigating tricky conversations with border agents.

“There are a lot of people getting in [to the U.S.], and they’re getting in for cannabis-related work. They’re getting in because there is money,” she said.

Segal said the first step is creating a quick, honest narrative that emphasizes economic contributions.

“You can’t go into the U.S. to engage in illegal activity…but if you create a narrative that resonates with ‘buy American, hire American,’ you’re far more likely to be granted entry,” she said. “Cannabis companies investing millions of dollars in the U.S. and hiring 10,000 employees…they’re going to let you in to oversee that investment.”

Segal says a strong narrative is all about psychology: “You have to be deferent. You have to be obsequious.…If you do that politely, you have a high chance of getting in.”

She advised travellers to keep explanations concise, true, and focused on the legal nature of their business activities.

As well, protect your private information.

“You’re pretty vulnerable at the border,” she said. “They have the right to take your phone and laptop. By virtue of asking for the privilege of entering another country you’re relinquishing the right to privacy.”

Segal suggested travelling with a clean phone and laptop or storing cannabis-related documents in cloud-based software, which authorities aren’t allowed to search. If a border crosser refuses to unlock their phone, it can be confiscated and decrypted, and the information can be disseminated to any part of the U.S. government.

Although the information on a phone may not constitute illegal activities in Canada, she said, it can be enough to have an application denied.

If a quick narrative and spotless phone don’t work and things look bleak, Segal said travellers can enact their rights at any point during the conversation.

“If you’re going to make an admission, understand the essential elements of committing that offence,” she said, noting travellers often self-incriminate by signing forms—charges—they haven’t read.

“Don’t sign anything unless you agree with it.”

Travellers also have the right to silence—an applicant is not bound to answer questions and can retract an application to the U.S. at any time.

“Absolutely, you’ll have a problem…the next time you attempt to cross the border. But federal cannabis legalization will come to the States eventually. You don’t want to have a bar on you entering by the time it does,” she said.

“Exercise your right to silence in the meantime.…It’s a matter of being careful for a while, and then it’ll pass.”