Crossing the Line

For most of us, summer means time to travel. But if you're one of the 1.5 million Canadians who have a criminal record for simple possession of marijuana, you might want to reconsider if you've booked a vacation in the United States.

"Post 9-11, more people are being questioned, and therefore more people are being turned away for these types of grounds," says Greg Samuels, a U.S. immigration lawyer based in Vancouver. There's a lot of stress at border crossings, and U.S. officials are likely to exercise their considerable discretion against anyone who's a problem. "It's much more common now." According to government manuals, U.S. immigration officers are supposed to deny entry to anyone who's ever violated "any law or regulation relating to a controlled substance."

(They can also refuse anyone convicted of any crime involving "moral turpitude," which can include anything from murder to sodomy.)

But it goes further. Even if your criminal record's clean, just admitting that you once smoked pot is enough to keep you out--as gold-medal snowboarder Ross Rebagliati learned in February, when U.S. border cops refused to let him travel to Salt Lake City as part of Whistler's Olympic bid committee. Rebagliati eventually got in, but had to submit fingerprints, a doctor's letter certifying he was drug-free, and $195 U.S. for a temporary "waiver" of his offence, plus have a lawyer plead his case to immigration officers.

He was lucky: Canadians with criminal records for minor drug offences usually wait up to 10 months to hear whether they're entitled to a waiver, which is only valid for one year. And if they ever apply to live or work in the States, they're often turned down flat. Michael Jacobsen, the Vancouver lawyer who represented Rebagliati, says he has one client who can't get into the U.S., even though he's married to an American, because he has two minor pot convictions. "There can be some really serious impact on their future mobility."

But if you've got a record and you're still determined to travel south, there's always a way.

"I go where they don't do a lot of computer work," says one B.C. drug reform activist, who's made it across the border several times recently to attend conferences. Avoid airplanes, trains and ferries where your name ends up on passenger lists, he advises, and never travel by bus, because customs officers treat bus passengers like dirt.

Instead, he suggests, you're best bet is to cross in a recent-model car, owned and driven by somebody with a clean record. To Americans, an automobile is the surest sign of respectability--and you don't need a lawyer to tell you that.

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