Travelling After Cannabis Legalization: What Canadians Need to Know

Oct 17, 2018

Recreational cannabis use became legal in Canada on Oct. 17, 2018 -- a change that has some interesting ramifications for tourism and travellers (even those who abstain). Here, we set out what you need to know.

How does legalization affect travel within Canada?

Under the Cannabis Act, “there [will] be no inherent barriers to transporting cannabis between provinces and territories.” Each province has its own rules on legal age and public use, however, and these must be respected during your travels. If you ever pack cannabis in your luggage, store it in a sealed container that won’t let smells escape. It’s important to keep your bags from acquiring lingering odours that will alarm sniffer dogs or border guards. You might even consider getting a different set of luggage for your international travel, for reasons that will become clear as you continue reading.

How does legalization affect travel to the United States?

If a U.S. border agent asks if you ever smoked pot before it was legal in Canada, she’s not just making idle chitchat. You can be deemed unfit to enter the States if you broke Canadian laws, including the laws against cannabis use that were in effect prior to legalization. American immigration lawyer Len Saunders warned the Senate Hearing Committee that Canadians risk a permanent ban from the U.S. if they admit to having used the drug. “They’re basically turned around, told to go back to Canada, and told they are inadmissible for life,” he said.

In practice, questions about previous cannabis use are rare. “It’s discretionary,” said Saunders. “But if you’re asked this question, I’ve always told clients you’re under no obligation to say yes.” (You must answer truthfully if asked about previous drug convictions, but you can decline to answer question about usage.) The guard, in turn, can decline to allow you entry to the U.S. that day, which is certainly inconvenient, but not as inconvenient as a lifetime ban.

The best way to avoid any issues is not to give border guards a reason to ask questions. It may seem obvious, but don’t pull up to a ground crossing in a car that smells of smoke, and don’t carry bags that smell of cannabis or could contain drug residue. 

What if you work in the legal cannabis industry? According to a recent statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, such employees will "generally be admissible to the U.S." as long as their trip is recreational in nature. The statement goes on to read, "if a traveller is found to be coming to the U.S. for a reason related to the marijuana industry, they may be deemed inadmissible." 

Can I bring cannabis on my trip overseas?

Nope. Doing so is illegal and can carry serious punishments -- on the government page on alcohol, drugs and travel, the Canadian government reports that more than a third of the 1,700 Canadians in jail abroad are there for drug-related offences. If you have a medicinal cannabis prescription, seek specialized advice, but err on the side of caution -- your prescription may not carry any weight in countries with strict drug policies.

What should I know when I'm returning to Canada?

It is illegal to bring cannabis into Canada, even if you have a medical prescription.  "If you do have cannabis or products containing cannabis with you when you enter Canada, you must declare them to the Canada Border Services Agency. If you do not declare cannabis products when you enter Canada, you can face enforcement action, including arrest and prosecution," states a government fact sheet. 

I don't use cannabis. Will my cross-border travel be affected? 

Even teetotalers could end up feeling the effects of cannabis legalization on their travel plans. Border searches and delays are already being reported as U.S. officials step up their scrutiny of Canadian travellers. A leaked report from the Canadian Border Services Agency noted that delays could peak around summer festivals or other events that attract Americans interested in using cannabis without fear of arrest. Also, cities near the border, including Niagara Falls, are considering opening cannabis lounges to attract Americans who’d like to consume the drug legally. If this becomes the case, that line at the border could take longer than ever. What a drag.

For official guidelines and updates, see this Government of Canada advisory on alcohol, drugs and travel.

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