Tips for Canadians Caught with Marijuana at U.S. Border, Washington State, Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens County
While marijuana is not legal in British Columbia, its possession in smaller quantities is certainly more tolerated then in Washington State. And for a B.C. resident, being caught at the U.S. border with even the smallest amount of marijuana can be a harrowing experience. A marijuana possession charge in B.C. is often handled by a single police officer who conducts a search and then may or may not write a ticket. But in recent years at the U.S. border, Canadians caught with marijuana have been detained up to 8 hours while numerous federal agents search every nook and cranny of their vehicle and personal belongings, while others agents watch with one hand on their holster. I have lived and practiced law in Washington State’s border counties since about 1994, and while policies of marijuana in other law enforcement agencies have loosened, it seems that the federal agents take marijuana more seriously then ever. Since the 9/11 bombing in 2001, the number of agents at the border has tripled, but I am not sure how much safer the area has become. Marijuana at the border is such a distraction for federal agents, that one can imagine that if terrorists did want to enter the country that all they would have to do is send an advance guard of otherwise law abiding British Columbians with a gram or two of cannabis in their possession. I sometimes wonder if high-level U.S. officials resent the Canadians because a lot of the marijuana in Washington does come from British Columbia. Whatever the reason, Canadians are often shocked at the treatment at the border, and here are a few tips from a criminal defense lawyer on how to survive:
- Be alert of the border locations. It is common to hear of a traveling Canadian stumbling upon a U.S. Border station on accident. Many of the major routes travel along or near the U.S. border. It is a common misconception to believe that you can approach the border and then ask to just loop around. However, once you approach the border station, you have already entered the territorial U.S. Occasionally, Canadians will simply drive near the border to wait for a friend arrival. Be aware of any signs that warn travelers with the following language: ‘Beyond this point all traffic must proceed directly to the border.” In other words, if you travel near enough to the border, you will find American officials waiving you in.
- Exercise your right to remain silent. I can’t say I know a lot about Canadian constitutional law, but in the U.S. you have the right to remain silent and not incriminate yourself. And you need not wait until an agent reminds you of that right. If marijuana is found in your vehicle, do not make any statement admitting that you knew it was there. If the marijuana is in your suitcase, this might seem like a no brainer, but no one knows that your partner couldn’t have just left it there, and you just dropped him or her off 15 minutes prior.
- You can’t talk yourself out of being charged. The agents couldn’t care less if the marijuana was a small amount or was personal use, your will always be cited and receive papers prohibiting your re-entry. I have seen marijuana cases referred for court in Okanogan, Ferry and Stevens County in the amount of .1 gram. And .1 gram is about the size of a grain of rice. The agents might imply that they will be lenient if you are cooperative, but I have never seen that to be true. Although some local law enforcement agents might let someone go without charging them, this just never happens with marijuana at the border.
- Know what to expect. While the federal border agents might seem gung ho about finding marijuana in your vehicle, keep in mind that their federal counter parts in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Spokane won’t take the case if the amount of marijuana is relatively small. And by “small” I mean less than a hockey bag full. Let me explain this a little better. Bringing any amount of marijuana across the border is a federal offense in the United States, but in practice you will be referred for charges in State court in Ferry County, Okanogan County, or Stevens County. Once in state court, you could face up to 90 days jail for a misdemeanor marijuana charge, but will likely receive 1 day in jail or less. For possession of marijuana in an amount over forty grams, you could potentially face felony charges. For more on punishments see here and here.
In conclusion, there are many cultural difference between how the local Canadian authorities and U.S. Border agents view marijuana. Maybe in a future blog posts we can discuss how the Canadian border agents freak out when Americans show up with a car load of firecrackers, or handguns, or tazers.
What do you think of the way U.S. Border agents treat these cases? If you have a story you would like to share, please post it as a comment below.