Clearing the smoke: marijuana at the border

Published on Wed, Aug 21, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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More than nine months after the passing of Initiative 502, marijuana’s legality in the state of Washington is still murky.

It’s legal for adults to possess up to an ounce, and it’s legal to smoke it (just not in public). State and private entities are working out the logistics of a legal, taxed market for marijuana, but currently the marijuana one possesses must materialize out of nowhere, as it’s currently illegal to buy, sell or grow the stuff. And, just as it is illegal to drive while intoxicated, it is illegal to drive or operate machinery while high.

That’s all pretty cut and dry, but in a border town such as Blaine, a change in jurisdiction at the border can cause confusion. That’s because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and the international border is run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a federal entity. In B.C., marijuana possession is technically illegal, but in cases involving small amounts for personal use the law is rarely enforced. People coming from B.C. often forget that although marijuana is legal in Washington, it’s still illegal to bring it across the border.

“It can be very confusing for Canadians,” said Rajeev Majumdar, the Blaine Municipal Court prosecutor. “Although it’s legal in Washington, it’s still a forbidden item at the border.”

In the past, local law enforcement officers were called in when people tried to enter the U.S. carrying small amounts of marijuana. The Blaine police department would respond to marijuana possession violations two or three times per week at the Peace Arch border crossing.

“We would have to conduct our own investigation and very often we’d end up with a violation. The offender would be issued a court date and have to appear for an arraignment in Blaine Municipal Court, and usually have to pay a fine,” said police chief Mike Haslip.

Since the city no longer processes those cases, it has lost a source of revenue from marijuana possession penalties, but the amount is negligible, Haslip said. Local police and the court also don’t have to spend time and resources processing those cases.

“Non-traffic violations account for less than 10 percent of the violations that go through our municipal court, and of those, a small percentage were marijuana possession cases,” Haslip said. “It has some impact, but we don’t anticipate that it will be significant in terms of revenue or expenditures.”

CBP agents now issue their own fines for marijuana possession, said CBP spokesman Mike Milne.

“If we encounter marijuana that is clearly for personal use, we seize it and issue a civil penalty that is paid to CBP,” he said. 

For large amounts that appear to be intended for distribution, CBP agents will call the U.S. Prosecuting Attorney’s office in Seattle, who will then charge the offender with drug trafficking through international borders.

Even for small amounts, CBP agents can deny entry into the U.S. in addition to seizing the marijuana and issuing a civil penalty. The offender then must obtain a waiver to enter the U.S. – a process that costs hundreds of dollars.

“It’s decided on a case-by-case basis,” Milne said.

The bottom line is, “it’s still illegal to bring it across the border,” Milne said. “Just because it’s legal in the state of Washington doesn’t change that fact.”