Canadian cannabis investor gets lifetime U.S. entry ban as conference goers face scrutiny at border

At least 12 other Canadians en route to the same conference were detained for hours

A Canadian investor travelling to Las Vegas, Nevada, to attend a prominent cannabis conference and tour a new cannabis facility has been issued a lifetime entry ban to the United States, according to an immigration lawyer he consulted.

“He was travelling straight from Vancouver to Vegas. When they found out he was going down to tour the marijuana facility and that he was an investor in marijuana, they gave him a lifetime ban,” said Len Saunders, an immigration lawyer based in the border town of Blaine, Wash., who was consulted by the individual after receiving the ban.

The individual, who invests in a Canadian cannabis business that has an operation in Nevada, received the ban on the morning of Nov. 14, as he travelled to Las Vegas to attend the Marijuana Business Conference & Expo, one of the largest gatherings of cannabis industry players. The conference attracted close to 25,000 investors, entrepreneurs, lenders, lobbyists and executives of major U.S. and Canadian licensed cannabis producers, among others.

According to Saunders, who has a transcript of the exchange, a U.S. border guard at Vancouver International Airport’s pre-clearance area asked the individual if he understood that an investment in the U.S. cannabis industry was a “violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act related to controlled substance trafficking.”

“I learned that today,” the individual replied.

The transcript was provided to Saunders by the individual, who does not want to be named as he grapples with how to navigate the complications that come with having a lifetime entry ban to the U.S. “He’s very embarrassed. He’s also shell-shocked. I feel bad for the guy,” Saunders said.

The only way to circumvent a lifetime entry ban to the U.S. is to apply for a temporary waiver that will permit you to cross the border for up to five years. But applying for a waiver is a long and cumbersome process, full of paperwork, according to Saunders.

When we said we would be dropping by at the Marijuana Business Conference, he said ‘I’m going to need you to come with me

Concern over how Canadians affiliated with the cannabis industry will be treated when trying to cross the U.S. border has been an ongoing issue as Canada’s legal cannabis industry has expanded.

Cannabis is now federally legal in Canada, and legal for both recreational and medical use in 10 U.S. states, including Nevada, as well as Washington D.C., but remains illegal federally in the U.S.

About a month before cannabis became fully legal in Canada, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (U.S. CBP) issued a statement saying that any individual working in the cannabis industry in Canada could be deemed inadmissible to the U.S. They later clarified that statement, confirming that any Canadian traveling to the U.S. for reasons unrelated to the marijuana industry, even though he or she works in the industry, would “generally be admissible.”

Those guidelines, however, do not prevent border officials from subjecting Canadian travellers who work in the cannabis industry an additional layer of security screening. At least 12 Canadians working in the cannabis industry were detained for hours at U.S. CBP’s pre-clearance zone at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, because they were en route to the same cannabis conference in Vegas.

Roderick Elliot, senior vice-president at the lobbying firm Global Public Affairs was scheduled to depart from Toronto on an Air Canada flight directly to Las Vegas on Nov. 13, but ended up missing his flight due to a two-hour wait in U.S. CBP’s secondary screening area, where he was subjected to a number of additional questions about his affiliation with the cannabis industry.

Elliot’s colleague was also held up for secondary screening.

“The first border guard asked us specifically why we were going to be in Las Vegas, and when we said we would be dropping by at the Marijuana Business Conference, he said ‘I’m going to need you to come with me,’” Elliot told the Financial Post. He and his colleague were then ushered into a large white room — where 10 other individuals traveling to Vegas for the conference were also waiting — and asked to not talk, and not use their cellphones.

“I am a big supporter of secure borders. But these border guards were deliberately slowing down the process. It struck me that this was a fairly unnecessary measure, and they could have dealt with it in a much quicker way,” Elliot said.

Global Public Affairs, the lobbying firm that employs Elliot and his colleague consults for a number of sectors, including cannabis, but neither Elliot nor his colleague invest in the American cannabis industry. “We wanted to make sure the border guards understood that,” he said.

A number of high-level cannabis executives attending the conference, who declined to be named, managed to avoid issues at the border by not flying directly to their destination. One told the Financial Post that in anticipation of problems at the border, he was advised by his lawyers to fly into Los Angeles and then drive to Las Vegas a day later. Another said that he flew into San Diego first, before leaving for Las Vegas — he advised the other executives on his team attending the conference to employ the same tactic.

“On hindsight, I should have probably re-thought my travel route to the conference,” Elliot admitted. “But I can’t lie at the border, so I had to say I was going for a cannabis conference.”

The unidentified man who received a lifetime ban is not the first Canadian involved in the domestic cannabis industry to receive such a sanction. In May, Vancouver-based venture capitalist Sam Znaimer, who was investing in a number of U.S. cannabis startups, was interrogated by border officials about his investments and also barred for life — all in a span of four hours.

Saunders casts some of the blame on the Canadian government for perhaps not understanding the gravity of the border situation as it relates to cannabis. “Look, the Americans have already said that any foreigners involved with the cannabis industry can be denied entry and barred for life. Now you have the Canadian government advising people to tell the truth at the border. But I’m saying, it’s much better to say nothing — you will be denied entry, not given a lifetime ban. You don’t have to say anything at the border.”

Saunders also points out that even if cannabis eventually becomes legal at a federal level in America, it won’t change anything for those who have already obtained a lifetime ban.

“I would love to ask Ralph Goodale if he’s willing to hand out some free waivers that will help these people get back across the border. Because, trust me, this is going to continue being a big problem for Canadian business people.”