Answering truthfully to the question “have you ever smoked weed?” could get foreigners looking to visit the United States banned from entering the country for life. That’s what happened to Canadians Matthew Harvey and Alan Ranta, who were both asked about their marijuana use by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at the northern U.S. border.
“They said that I was inadmissible because I admitted to smoking marijuana after the age of 18 and before I’d received my medical marijuana licence,” Harvey told the Canadian news outlet CBC News.
Ranta, a freelance music journalist, separately told CBC News that U.S. border agents barred him from entering the United States after they searched through his camping gear and found a purse that read “weed money.” If Ranta wants to visit the country, he would have to apply for a $585 travel waiver to apply for advance permission to temporarily enter the United States.
“I answered truthfully. I said I had smoked [weed],” Ranta told the publication. “That led to followup questions on how much I smoked, where had I smoked it and when I smoked.”
Harvey and Ranta aren’t the only people who have been received a harsh penalty for telling the truth at the border. Within the past two years, U.S. border agents have permanently banned roughly 50 people from admission into the country because they admitted to smoking pot. And there are many more immigrants living within the United States who have been ensnared from the opposite end and deported for similar reasons.
Although various U.S. states have decriminalized marijuana use, its possession remains a federal offense, making immigrant drug offenders a deportation priority for the United States. That’s because a harsh 1996 federal immigration law — falling in line with the War on Drugs — helped to expand the slate of violations that can lead to the mandatory detention and deportation proceedings of both legal and undocumented immigrants.
Under the 1996 law, immigrants can be deported if they are convicted of a drug-related “aggravated felony.” But this term has been applied to low-level state misdemeanors — offenses for which people typically serve little to no jail time — including simple possession of a controlled substance. In fact, conviction for marijuana possession was the fourth most common offense among immigrants who were deported in the 2013 fiscal year.
In the 20 years since the federal law passed, there are plenty of examples of these harsh penalties for immigrants, in spite of the Obama administration’s increasing efforts to give “second chances” to U.S. citizens who committed non-violent, low-level criminal offenses.
There seem to be some exceptions to this harsh border policy— at least for high-level officials. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted to smoking marijuana “five or six times” in his life, including as an MP. Once he becomes a private citizen, he could face the same consequences as everyone else.