As Canada Legalizes Marijuana the US Tightens Border Controls
Canada, the US’s largest trading partner legalized marijuana. Most states bordering Canada it is legalized or medicalized. However, the Trump administration plans to deny entry to Canadians who use or sell marijuana
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Mark Steiner. Great to have you with us.
On Wednesday, Canada became the largest economic power on the planet to legalize marijuana. Some people argue that this move could alter the political, social, cultural and economic fabric of the nation, much like the prohibition and lifting of the prohibition on alcohol did for the United States. While provinces within Canada will have leeway to determine all kinds of regulations, from whether pot will be sold in government stores or privately, where it can be smoked and consumed and at what age you can use it or not use it. It’s getting legalized everywhere around the country.
Most of the states with the United States that border Canada have either legalized or medicalized marijuana. Here’s where the problem around reefer begins between these two seemingly allied nations. The U.S. Customs Service and Border Patrol are denying entry to anyone Canadian who has ever used marijuana now or in the past, along with all those who are involved in the growing Canadian marijuana industry. This is the Trumpian response. It is akin to what George Bush did in 2003, when he threatened to tighten the border if Canada legalized marijuana.
This act by the United States to retaliate against Canada’s legalization of marijuana not only has affected thousands of Canadians, but is a concern to many U.S. border cities, towns and states who rely on Canadian commerce and tourist dollars. Joining us to look at all of this is Sanho Tree, Director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. And Sanho, welcome to The Real News. Good to have you with us.
SANHO TREE: Thanks for having me.
MARC STEINER: So, in a broader context here, talk a bit about what this actually means for Canada. I mean, this is a huge move. This is a huge economic power in the world, legalizing marijuana on the border of a country that does not, except which states do. So, what does this mean for both Canada internally and externally, from your perspective?
SANHO TREE: Well, as Trevor Noah said last night on the Daily Show, Seth Rogan can finally try weed. It’s finally the acknowledgement that 40 percent of Canadian adults have used marijuana in the past and it serves no purpose to stigmatize them, to criminalize them. And in fact, with this legalization measure, those that have had prior convictions for possession of 30 grams or less will get those convictions expunged now. That’s really important for job prospects, for travel abroad, for other things like that. So, that’s a great step forward. But it also means that Canada is now regulating cannabis, whereas in most of the United States, it’s still the province of the black market and very often criminal groups.
And so, you can’t regulate that which you deliberately drive underground. And by regulating this, by legalizing it in Canada, they’re actually protecting youth. Because if you ask any kid in the United States, for instance, what’s easier to obtain, marijuana or alcohol, it’s almost always marijuana because we choose to regulate alcohol. We give legitimate alcohol store owners every reason not to sell to minors. You’ll be arrested, you’ll be prosecuted, you’ll be disgraced, every manner of calamity will befall you if you do this. But here, we’re going to give you a workable livelihood. You can make a reasonable amount of money in a regulated alcohol store. And so, people generally tend to enforce those policies themselves.
And that works, whereas if you go to the black market, the dealer who sells the kid marijuana might as well sell something more addictive to get a repeat customer if their only concern is maximizing profits. The other benefit of legalization is that you can get testing of cannabis before it reaches the market. We learned how important this was. I was shocked when Colorado legalized in 2012 and they finally implemented the pot shops and stores, and they tested the cannabis before it went into market, before it was manufactured to edible goods and stuff. And they found that a lot of these growers who had all these years claiming that they’ve been growing cannabis organically, hadn’t been.
They’d been using very risky and some prohibited herb pesticides to control fungus, to control insect infestations, which happens when you grow monocultures of any sort. It’s like a giant buffet when the right predator, the right invasive species. And so, they use a lot of these industrial strength chemicals. Now, unlike vegetables and fruits, which some of these chemicals are approved for, we do not wash our cannabis before smoking it. They smoke it directly. So, people had been ingesting this stuff directly into their lungs. And I don’t think most people want pesticides in their lungs. And so, that gives people an incentive then to go into state pot shops in Canada, rather than rely on the black market, even though they might try to undersell state stores in the short run.
MARC STEINER: This is a total digression. Has there ever been a study about how many people consume marijuana that has been tainted with all these chemicals and pesticides in this country and any others?
SANHO TREE: It’s been going on for decades and I don’t even want to think about it. When you have these outdoor grows and indoor grows that are underground, it’s just too easy for these growers to reach for the industrial strength chemicals rather than use organic means. And there are many organic means, but they’re slower, sometimes they’re a bit more labor intensive. But you can grow the stuff without using these chemicals.
MARC STEINER: So, going back. One of the things I was reading this morning about the legalization in Canada is that the Canadian Medical Association and others really seemed to oppose this, saying Canada hasn’t gone far enough to protect citizens in Canada from the consequences of legalization. Well, what can you tell us about that debate and what that means? I never really heard that debate. I didn’t hear it in Uruguay when they debated when they legalized it earlier. I’ve heard a little bit about that in some places like Holland, but what do we know about that?
SANHO TREE: Seth Rogen never had a problem getting cannabis in Canada and most Canadians don’t, even before ending prohibition. So, they have been using it.
MARC STEINER: Is Seth Rogan the only Canadian who smokes reefer? I’m just kidding, go ahead.
SANHO TREE: He’s probably most famous. And so, yeah. There’s a lot of fear mongering, a lot of scare tactics that have been used by various lobbies. But as we found in the United States, marijuana use amongst teens tends to decline. And we knew this from decades ago, the Dutch experiment, where they never quite legalized marijuana in Holland, but they tolerated it is as the lowest level of law enforcement priority. The police are instructed to look away. They are not going to harass you if you go to a regulated pot shop and buy cannabis. But the Dutch have found that they had lower rates of teen use of marijuana, even though historically, they’ve had much more liberal drug laws compared to the U.S. Not currently, but historically.
And I think the Dutch did something remarkable. They managed to make marijuana boring. I think that’s a good slogan, it’s a good objective. When you stop making it forbidden fruit, it becomes something that your parents’ generation does. They can take it or leave it, the kids, and it’s not that cool for them anymore. It actually is kind of a boring drug, actually when you think about it. So, let’s treat it like that. It’s kind of like Facebook when your parents’ generation started joining it. It’s no longer that cool anymore.
MARC STEINER: So, let’s talk a bit about what’s happening at the border. Because right now, it seems from all the reports I’ve been reading that the Border Patrol, the U.S. Customs Service on the border, are really being active with this and pushing people about whether they’ve used marijuana and not allowing people in. I’m not sure the numbers, I’ve read thousands. You know better than I what that is. Now, talk about what’s being set up here at the border between Canada the U.S.
SANHO TREE: In recent months, there have been many dozens of people who have been turned away. We don’t have hard numbers on these, but certainly attorneys on the border areas are dealing with a lot of clients who’ve received lifetime bans. Just last week, however, the Customs and Border Protection finally issued some degree of clarification about this. They had said previously that they were deliberately going to target people who worked in the cannabis industry. So, even if you worked at a pot shop in Canada but didn’t consume yourself, you would still be eligible for a lifetime ban from entering the United States because you’re contributing to a criminal enterprise, as the federal government considers it.
And so, they finally said they were not going to target those people explicitly if they traveled to the U.S. not on business. So, if they’re coming to promote marijuana they would still be banned, but if they’re just coming as regular tourists they’re not going to be harassed. However, there are still lots of regs on the books still that Customs and Border Protection can use. And they have extraordinary leeway to what questions they ask you when you attempt to enter the United States. And so, they can be as obnoxious as they want, unfortunately. And sometimes, they can be quite rude.
So, if you have long hair, if you’re wearing a pot t-shirt or have anything that gives them any suspicion, or even without suspicion, they can ask you: “Have you ever consumed cannabis? Have you ever been arrested for cannabis?” And if you answer honestly, then they can ban you still. And so, that’s an abomination that needs to be updated, that needs to be gone from our books. This is unnecessary harassment, especially when it’s legal on both sides of the border, when the law in these border states, including Michigan and North Dakota are voting on it in November. And I think there’s a chance they will pass, and certainly in Michigan and possibly North Dakota as well. So, all these border states will be legal on both sides.
MARC STEINER: So how much of this is driven by the Trump administration’s obsession with being at war with Canada, with the obsession of this administration and states that legalize or medicalize marijuana, and how this kind of border action is playing into this? Because the numbers of people, I’m not sure if they’re growing or not, but I know at least 22,000 people or so have been banned from the U.S. for many reasons, maybe not just marijuana, from Canada. How does this all play into that?
SANHO TREE: Well, the behavior of the Trump administration towards Canada is something that’s really hard to wrap your head around. I don’t like to use salty language, but the word thickish comes to mind. There’s no other way to describe how utterly obnoxious and unnecessary these punitive measures are, not just with regard to marijuana, but on trade, on dairy products, on every imaginable issue, Donald Trump seems to have a very personal grudge against Canada. And it’s hard to explain. And yes, Border Patrol and Customs, they’ve always exercised their power. And they have banned people in the past for marijuana, but it was more obvious offenses. If your car reeked of marijuana, if you were wearing a giant pot t-shirt and gave them reason to ask you those questions, yeah, they would do that in the past.
But now, they seem to be wanting to ramp it up and do it in a very random way. They’re certainly not going to be able to flag 40 percent of Canadian travelers coming to the United States. That would be just impossibly obnoxious. But they can use it as a sort of Damocles to hang over Canadian civil society. If you make social media postings about your use of cannabis, for instance, and they find that online, and there has been evidence that they’re searching for that sort of thing, they can have grounds then to ban you for life, even though you may be traveling to California or Washington State or Oregon where it’s completely legal.
There’s a way to get out of the lifetime ban, it involves a very expensive process, and you can get a temporary waiver for I think five years and it’ll cost you, I think, maybe a couple hundred dollars or a thousand dollars or something. But it’s really obnoxious, this policy. So, it seems to be that they’re using this to stifle debate, to stifle progress as much as they can. The Trump administration knows this train has left the station. There’s no way to stop it completely. But with Jeff Sessions and a lot of these social conservatives, they think, “Well, these are ways we could harass the movement to keep it from moving faster or to keep it in check or keep them in fear from speaking out.
MARC STEINER: So, how does this affect the hemisphere policies and what goes on in the Western Hemisphere between Mexico and here and beyond, NAFTA and more? Does this play into that at all?
SANHO TREE: So, when the new president, AMLO is his acronym, takes office in December in Mexico, a progressive, he’s already talked about legalizing marijuana in Mexico. So, when you think about it, right now you can drive from the Arctic Circle in Alaska through Canada, through Washington state, through Oregon, all the way down to the border of Mexico, and that is all legal marijuana territory. That is a huge shift. So, the latest Pew polls, for instance, show that 62 percent of Americans now favor legalization of cannabis. When I started in this field about 20, years ago it was less than half of that.
So, when you think about a controversial issue, a third rail political issue being able to double a rate of support, I didn’t realize this until a week or two ago and I really looked back, that’s incredible. Those kinds of polarizing social issues, especially when you consider that the federal government has spent more than a trillion dollars in my lifetime fighting the war on drugs, a lot of it through fear tactics and propaganda, and we’re still able to more than double support for marijuana legalization. That’s pretty remarkable.
MARC STEINER: Well, Sanho Tree, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. I appreciate the work that you do and look forward to continuing this and seeing where this takes us and what kind of comes out of all this over the coming months. Thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News, Sanho, always a pleasure.
SANHO TREE: Thanks for having me.
MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Take care.