As tensions between Canada and the U.S. have risen in recent months, a quieter, slower-burning conflict has been developing along the border: Canadians associated with the cannabis industry — even if they have never used the drug — can be banned for life from America.

Despite Washington State legalizing cannabis within state boundaries, the border is under federal jurisdiction. And since cannabis, along with drugs such as heroin and cocaine, is a Schedule I substance, past or current association with the drug is considered a federal crime in the U.S. Canadians involved in the cannabis economy are finding themselves hit with lifetime bans on entry to the U.S. for violating federal drug law. Immigration lawyers and policy experts say there is little hope of the situation improving.  (ELAINE THOMPSON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Jay Evans, CEO of Keirton Inc., an equipment manufacturer, was recently given a lifetime ban on entering the United States when border guards discovered some of his machines are used by cannabis producers. Experts say an increasing number of Canadians involved in the cannabis economy are learning the same lesson the hard way. Canadians involved in the cannabis economy are finding themselves hit with lifetime bans on entry to the U.S. for violating federal drug law. Immigration lawyers and policy experts say there is little hope of the situation improving.  

In addition to those who have used marijuana, Canadians who are involved with the cannabis economy have been labelled “inadmissible” because they are considered to be living off the profits of the drug trade. Once banned for life, they must seek legal waivers from an immigration lawyer — good for between one and five years — for the rest of their lives when they wish to cross the border. A Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs press officer for the U.S. State Department told The Star via email that “admission requirements into the United States will not change due to Canada’s legalization of cannabis.”

Blaine, Wash.-based immigration lawyer Len Saunders said he hears from Canadians seeking waivers for inadmissibility because of cannabis at least once or twice a week — up from one or two cases per year 15 years ago.

Jay Evans, CEO of agricultural equipment manufacturer Keirton Inc., was crossing into the U.S. in early April along with two employees, both engineers with Nexus passes and spotless criminal records. They’d intended to meet with an American company to begin design work on a new machine that would streamline labour costs for cannabis producers.“We had not yet designed the product, we had not yet marketed the product and we’d not yet sold the product,” Evans said in an interview.

During routine questioning, one of the three men mentioned their design would eventually be used in the Canadian cannabis industry, and they were immediately taken into the secondary inspection facility for further scrutiny. Keirton is not involved with the production, distribution or sale of cannabis. But because its equipment is explicitly intended to be used by people who are, Evans and his colleagues were told after a six-hour interview they were “drug traffickers” according to U.S. federal law.

“The border guard supervisor told me he felt really bad, and felt it wasn’t right, and had a lot of empathy toward us,” Evans said. Nevertheless, Evans and his coworkers now have lifetime bans on entering the United States, and must obtain waivers allowing them temporary entry into the country.

With cannabis legalization set to take effect in October, the industry could generate more than $7 billion in its first year, according to a recent report from Deloitte, with tens of thousands of Canadian jobs expected to be created as the cannabis market continues to grow. “My prediction is, come Oct. 17, it’s going to be a tidal wave of cases,” Saunders said.

Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., agrees with Evans’ and Saunders’ analysis. Tree said this “new wave of intensity” of border enforcement may be another symptom of increasingly “draconian” federal attitudes toward immigration and drugs under the current administration.

The border guards have the right to search travellers’ electronic devices, and download their content, but have also taken to searching their social media looking for clues as to who might be involved — even indirectly — in the drug trade.

But Bernstein said he’s under the impression the issue of Canadian inadmissibility is currently on the back-burner for the federal government. Canadian venture capitalists have seized on this opening, offering investments from Canada where such transactions are legal. But when crossing over into the U.S., many are surprised to find they’re now considered to be living off the avails of crime in the eyes of U.S. federal law.

“It’s going to happen even more, and especially now that they’re going after business travellers, it’s going to be the Wild West at the border,” he said. “It’s going to be crazy.”