Canada and cannabis legalization: Reaction in the United States

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As Canada makes history with its nationwide legalization of cannabis, some observers in the United States are watching with a sense of cautious optimism; in the hopes that their northern neighbor’s actions might end up having a positive impact on America’s cannabis legalization movement.

But there are also concerns about the unintended legal consequences of Canada’s cannabis legalization when it comes to the tens of millions of Canadians and Americans who cross their mutual border annually.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a statement late last month, clarifying its policies regarding “Canada’s Legalization of Marijuana and Crossing the Border.” The statement warns that while cannabis may be legal in Canada and some states, pot remains illegal under U.S. federal law. 

“Consequently, crossing the border or arriving at a U.S. port of entry in violation of this law may result in denied admission, seizure, fines, and apprehension,” the CBP statement said. Washington, D.C. also reversed its recent ban that kept Canadians who work in the legal cannabis industry from entering the U.S.

“A Canadian citizen working in or facilitating the proliferation of the legal marijuana industry in Canada, coming to the U.S. for reasons unrelated to the marijuana industry will generally be admissible to the U.S.,” according the CBP statement.

 But it also warned that “if a traveler is found to be coming to the U.S. for reason related to the marijuana industry, they may be deemed inadmissible.”

Unexpected issues for cross-border travelers?

Dr. Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, believes the changes in Canada’s cannabis laws have created the potential “for people to get caught up at the border in situations that they really didn’t anticipate.”

Trautman expects less potential crossing problems between Canadian provinces and states where cannabis is clearly illegal.

 But for travelers between Canada and cannabis-legal states such as Washington or Alaska, she told 420 Intel, “there’s definitely a bit of a concern, especially among younger people who have grown up in this climate where recreational marijuana feels pretty decriminalized.”

And as a result, she said, “there’s a lot of outreach and media happening right now in Washington State, that’s really aiming to educate Washingtonians and other cross-border travelers as well about what’s legal and what’s not.”

There’s also the issue of economic competition between cannabis businesses in bordering states and provinces. Trautman works in Whatcom County in Washington, which is adjacent to British Columbia.

“We have talked to stores in our county…and anecdotally people have said about 20 to 30 percent of store purchases in Whatcom County are done by Canadians coming from outside.” Some Canadian consumers, she said, are lured across the border to Washington by the state’s larger variety of high-quality cannabis products.

“There’s also a very strong organic, local pot market here,” she added, “so you know what you’re getting and you know exactly where it’s coming from.”

Fears of being left behind in the global marketplace

U.S. cannabis legalization proponents, as well as some congressional lawmakers, see Canada as a lesson in how to successfully legalize pot on a federal scale. But there’s also a sense of frustration that America’s legal cannabis companies might be seeing a major business opportunity slip away.

 “The archaic state of our federal law is winning over common sense,” California Congressman Lou Correa – the co-sponsor of several major cannabis measures in the House of Representatives – said in an email to 420 Intel.

 “Right now more than half of all Americans live in a place where cannabis is legal in some form,” he continued. “To ban legitimate American companies from doing business with legitimate Canadian businesses hurts both our economies, and takes good jobs away from Americans. The explosion of legal cannabis is upon us. For the federal government to continue to deny this is foolish.”

"Canada is setting a strong example for how to end marijuana prohibition at the national level and replace it with a system of regulated production and sales that is largely governed at the local level,” Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement released earlier this week.

“The U.S. and other countries grappling with the complexities of such a significant policy shift will have an excellent opportunity to learn from the Canadian experience.”

The big difference between cannabis legalization in the U.S. and Canada, Hawkins added, has been “the blessing provincial governments (in Canada) have received from their federal government. It is time for Congress to step up and take similar action to harmonize our nation's state and federal marijuana policies.” There’s also the economic reality that Canada is now the largest industrial nation with adult-use, legalized cannabis.

“We hope that the most immediate impact of Canadian legalization is that it galvanizes supporters of ending prohibition in the U.S. and convinces members of the industry here to increase their efforts in support of reform,” Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told 420 Intel in an email.

“The U.S. cannabis industry is in danger of being left behind in the global market and must make a concerted effort to help pass comprehensive marijuana policy reform in Congress.”

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