Bill Powers flipped through the sworn statement he gave to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the printed pages taking him back to that August afternoon — back to the border checkpoint into Washington state where agents asked if he had ever smoked marijuana.
Yes, he answered, not initially thinking much of the question. The 57-year-old Canadian has a license for medical marijuana, and pot had been legal in Washington for six years. Like that, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents turned him away with an extreme decree: He had been banned from the United States.
“It’s absolutely out of control. Here I am being honest with the United States and I get the boot,” Powers said on a recent afternoon as he stood in his driveway in this farming town an hour east of Vancouver. “I have a license … yet they’re turning people away for pot? It makes not a single bit of sense.”
With Canada set to legalize recreational marijuana nationwide on Wednesday — only the second country to do so, following Uruguay — many Canadians, especially those who live near the border, face growing anxiety over what to say if U.S. customs agents ask them if they’ve ever consumed marijuana.
Lying to a border agent can result in a person being denied entry. But so too can being honest about past marijuana use.
While nearly every state along the U.S.-Canada border has legalized marijuana, at least for medical use, ports of entry fall under federal jurisdiction, meaning cannabis is still viewed as a Schedule I drug — just like heroin.
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, U.S. border agents — who have broad discretion in what questions they ask people seeking entry — can turn away noncitizens who acknowledge having used a controlled substance, ever.
Last year, U.S. officials turned away 22,000 Canadians at ports of entry, deeming them inadmissible, according to the most recent available data. The Department of Homeland Security does not list the reasons a person is denied entry and the agency declined to say how many Canadians are annually deemed inadmissible because of marijuana.
But based on interviews with immigration attorneys here in the Pacific Northwest, hundreds of new marijuana admission cases come in each week.
Len Saunders, Powers’ attorney, said he’s averaged two new clients a week for the past year. He expects the number to increase after Canada legalizes pot, making it more accessible and acceptable to use.
“Business is booming as Canadians are being turned away for simply admitting to taking a drag of a joint 20 years ago. It’s that silly,” Saunders said. “They’re being penalized for honesty. No one wants to lie to a border agent.”
His clients often face a pricey workaround, Saunders said. They can apply for a waiver — about $600 in addition to legal fees — that grants entry into the U.S. for up to five years. The individual must carry the waiver at all times when in America. The process must be repeated when it’s time to renew.
Saunders, whose office is in Blaine, Wash., a border town along Interstate 5, said the overlap of immigration law and the piecemeal marijuana policies in the United States make for frustrating legal situations, especially in states where marijuana is allowed for recreational and medical use, like Washington.
“If you’re a Canadian tourist in Seattle and you’re over the age of 21, you can buy marijuana. But if on your next trip to the U.S., you’re questioned by border agents and you admit to using pot in the past, you can be banned,” he said. “It’s totally backwards and doesn’t make sense.”
Last year, more than a dozen members of Congress wrote to U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, as well as to U.S. border officials, to express concerns about Canadians and other noncitizens being targeted at U.S. ports of entry.
“We ask that your respective agencies develop policies that ban penalizing noncitizens based on their use or possession of marijuana if they are visiting or residing in states that have enacted marijuana use laws,” the lawmakers wrote.
In September, Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), who signed the letter, made a direct appeal to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. He wrote to her and highlighted a Star Vancouver article from July outlining how three Canadians with no criminal history were deemed “inadmissible” by the U.S. government. The men own a company that builds equipment to harvest marijuana.
“The archaic state of the law is winning over common sense,” Correa, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in an interview. “The federal law is not at all reflective of what is going on.”
Correa — who has met with Canadian officials to discuss the issue — wants Homeland Security to stop banning people for past cannabis use until Congress can bring the law in line with reality. He has not received a response.
In a statement posted to its website last week, the Department of Homeland Security said it stands firm on barring even casual marijuana users from entering the country.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection enforces the laws of the United States and U.S. laws will not change following Canada’s legalization of marijuana,” the statement read. “Requirements for international travelers wishing to enter the United States are governed by and conducted in accordance with U.S. Federal Law, which supersedes state laws.”
For Powers, the ordeal began in August when he and his girlfriend, Marian, tried to catch the Stone Temple Pilots at a two-day music festival outside Seattle.
When they pulled up to the port of entry in Sumas, Wash., customs agents waved them over to a secondary-checkpoint area. It was a random flag, common at ports of entry.
While they were still inside their GMC Yukon, an agent peppered them with questions. Where were they headed? How long did they plan to stay? How much cash did they have on them? Then the agent asked Powers and his girlfriend to step inside a building for more questions.
Inside, agents asked to look through his iPhone. He gave them permission and they scrolled through his photos, pausing on a shot of his medical marijuana card.
Did he ever smoke pot before getting a card in 2010, an agent asked? Yes, Powers responded.
“I wasn’t going to lie,” said Powers, who works in construction and says he uses cannabis to help with shoulder and back pain.
The agents kept a transcript of their conversation — the pages that became his sworn statement — and told Powers he had been deemed “inadmissible.” They handed him paperwork for a waiver and told him that he was barred from entering the United States.
“I thought they were kidding,” he said. “They’re treating people like terrorists when all we did was admit to smoking some pot.”
On a recent afternoon, Powers met with Saunders at a Starbucks a short drive from the border. Saunders explained that it would take three to six months to get a waiver. It would cost him $580, plus $1,000 in legal fees, and Powers needed to get a background check and two character reference letters.
If he did all that, Saunders assured him, he would get the waiver, though he would have to renew it in five years.
“I hope so,” Powers replied. “I enjoy the United States. I enjoy going to shows.”
Most people without a violent criminal history get waivers eventually, though the process is costly and can take months.
Another of Saunders’ clients — who asked to be identified by her first name and last initial because she fears retaliation from the U.S. government — received her waiver in April, after waiting four months.
In fall 2017, Julie L. planned to visit her daughter at college in Arizona, but never made it past Blaine. When she pulled up to the port of entry, an agent asked her several questions, including whether she’d ever used marijuana.
She had, she said, mentioning that she was given a fine for possession of a small amount of marijuana in 1982 when she was in her early 20s. She was turned away and banned from the U.S. until she received her waiver.
“I was being honest,” she said. “Shocking to say the least.”
For Powers, the ban meant canceling a trip to Las Vegas to see Metallica for his girlfriend’s birthday next month. Until he was banned, the couple traveled to Vegas at least three times a year to go to concerts or watch Penn & Teller perform.
These days, Powers, who is semi-retired, spends much of his time working on the single-level ranch house that he is building for himself. On a recent afternoon, as a light rain fell, he took a break from installing window panes. He found a spot under the roof and did what he often does in his down time — scrolled through his iPhone searching for upcoming concerts in Washington and Las Vegas.
Asked if he would be upset if he doesn’t get the waiver, Powers paused.