How Legal Cannabis Could Affect U.S.-Canada Border Crossings

byAlanaArmstrong5 minutes

Every day, 400,000 people and $2.4 billion in trade move between the U.S. and Canada. Both countries have a vested interest in maintaining trade, commerce and travel between the two nations. But the impending legalization of adult-use marijuana in Canada could make an already fortified border even more burdensome to cross.

For one thing, Canadians could be banned from entering the States because of their cannabis consumption. As for Americans, the temptation of cheaper adult-use cannabis in Canada could pull their tourism dollars into Canada. But if border hassles remain as they are—or increase, it could make Americans reconsider making the trip up north.

How 9/11 Changed the U.S.-Canadian Border

Security measures following 9/11 made crossing the border into the U.S. less appealing for Canadians. During this period, there was a decrease in cross-border shopping due to intimidating customs security procedures.

Because of the border-crossing slowdown, Canada and the U.S. signed the Smart Border Declaration in 2001. The original aim of the deal was to not only strengthen border security, but also to commit to sharing information between the authorities in both countries.

The Smart Border Declaration brought us the Free and Secure Trade (FAST) program, a way for businesses engaged in cross-border activities to pre-clear cargo and cross the border more quickly. But what sounded like a good idea didn’t deliver in the real world. With its extra pre-clearance paperwork and time delays due to extensive inspections and detainments, what started as a program to facilitate free trade and security fortification just made border crossing more painstaking and difficult. Plus, the costs associated with participating in FAST weren’t worth it for companies smaller than, say, a major automaker.

There are already problems crossing into Canada from the U.S and vice versa. So, the question is: Will the advent of legal adult-use cannabis in Canada add to those problems?

Will Marijuana Legalization Affect the Border?

Canada’s adult-use marijuana legalization may not produce the same outcomes at the border as 9/11 did, but it’s important to consider the negative consequences of further fortifying such a trade-heavy border.

American border officers have the power to ban travellers they deem "drug abusers," or those who lie about using marijuana. While customs officials aren’t required to ask about cannabis consumption, they could. So, it’s possible that people could not only be delayed at the border, but also be turned away from America with lifetime bans.

Canadian lawmakers are worried about cannabis purchase information that border-control agents may have access to under the FAST program. It’s conceivable that they could use this information to show that someone abuses drugs and therefore shouldn’t be let into the U.S.

It’s unclear how cannabis customer data will be handled and whether that information will be available to border agencies in the first place. Making the issue more complicated is that in some provinces, private-sector businesses will be selling marijuana, while in other places it will all be handled by the provincial government.

When it starts taking longer to cross the border as a result of changes to customs inspections, business will suffer. Lengthier security checks at borders mean increased costs due to extra paperwork, and goods being spoiled or delivered late.

Representatives from Canada’s trucking industry got a chance to foreshadow the future for senators this past April. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says that border-traffic congestion is the number one concern raised by the U.S. about Canadian cannabis legalization.

What to Do if Stopped at the Border

Lawyers suggest that Canadian travellers questioned at the border should refuse to answer any questions about cannabis that may get them banned from entering the States for life. Citizens crossing are only required to answer questions on possession, and charges or convictions. Refusing to answer means denial of entry, but it’s only temporary, and they may be granted entrance next time.

Those who do get banned may apply for a waiver that will allow them to cross the border. But the expense and time it takes is almost not worth it; it costs $752 for the waiver, plus lawyer’s fees and renewals at one- to five-year intervals.

U.S. Politicians Are Making Canada Nervous

Whether U.S. President Donald Trump tears up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or just tweaks it—he’s made mention of doing both, it’s clear that change of some kind is coming. Trump could ultimately decide to slow Canadian exports at the border, citing national security concerns. Minister Goodale’s press secretary Scott Bardsley stresses the importance of a robust cross-border relationship between the U.S. and Canada to facilitate trade and travel while securing the countries from shared threats.

In January, a memo from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended the Obama-era policy of keeping federal prosecutors from interfering with marijuana businesses in states where it’s legal. Cannabis stocks plunged and licensed producers (LP) with any cross-border interest cancelled their U.S.-based projects to focus on ventures at home and in other countries where the government’s on board with their cannabis industry. It just proves that marijuana-related decisions taken by either government do have an impact across the border.


Canadian policymakers and businesses are now bracing for the impact cannabis legalization will have on crossing the border. A rise in asylum seekers trying to cross into Canada from the United States fearing deportation by the Trump administration already has border tensions rising on both sides. When we throw in the possibility of lifetime bans from the U.S. given to Canadians for cannabis crimes, plus an American president who wants to do away with NAFTA, it becomes a worrying equation for companies and individuals who do business on both sides of the border.

Photo credit: Easton Oliver