Following the legalization of marijuana in Canada in October 2018, the Canada-U.S. border has ‘thickened’, which has since made crossing the border into the United States from Canada a much more tedious and inefficient process. American Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are pulling more and more travellers, cars, and cargo shipments into secondary inspection at their borders as a result of suspicions that Canadians are indulging in cannabis far more than they used to when the drug was still illegal.
It has proven to be a big problem for everyone: not just Canadians trying to get themselves and their belongings over the border, but for CBP officers as well. Like anyone else, they take their jobs very seriously, and they know what is at stake if mistakes or oversights are made. Not to mention the constant reminders from their Commander in Chief that when it comes to securing the American border, stakes have never been higher.
So, what’s actually changed at the border?
Despite educational campaigns put on by the Canadian government to inform travellers that it is still illegal to cross an international border with marijuana, American CBP officials have acknowledged that their officers’ jobs have become far more onerous following legalization north of the border. An official is quoted as saying that “the change in legal status of the drug in Canada may lead U.S. border services to adopt new border inspection processes on Canadian shipments [and people] entering the US” so that the agency can continue to uphold its mission of maintaining the integrity of the border both effectively and efficiently.
For the time being, however, the only change made to US border inspection processes has been an increase in the total number of inspections conducted. This may allow officers to do their jobs effectively, but it is certainly not efficient.
American Border Protection Officers are feeling the pressure
This inefficiency is primarily a result of CBP officers feeling they are no longer well enough equipped to deal with the large number of people who have access to the drug in Canada and thus, the growing likelihood that marijuana plants and products are reaching the American border. At land crossings and airports, almost every vehicle and passenger without a NEXUS pass is pulled into secondary inspection to be thoroughly examined and questioned.
Officers feel the need to exercise more vigilance and suspicion when it comes to Canadian travellers. They claim that this increased suspicion is justifiably rooted in the fear that legalization has led to a substantial increase in consumption of the drug, as was the case in the state of Colorado, where use increased by 60% among adults and 20% among youth following legalization. According to Aaron Bowker, the CBP chief officer, the worry that travellers will now be able to more easily bring marijuana over the border is “always a concern”.
In October 2018 alone, Canadian residents took 3.6 million trips to the United States, and in the short time since legalization, wait times at land crossings have already increased, and the number of travellers being sent to secondary inspection by American border officers has followed suit.
But are CBP’s concerns actually justified?
Yes, apparently. The number of marijuana seizures by the American CBP has increased by 140% since October 2018, indicating that the higher level of prudence and paranoia being exercised by CBP officers is totally justified. So, while the extra time being taken by CBP officers to complete their inspections is certainly contributing to the problem of hold-ups at the border, their suspicions are well-founded, and officers cannot be forced to start doing their jobs any faster.
Can policy fix this?
Solutions to the problem are not yet completely clear. Will Donald Trump decide he also wants to build a wall along the 49th parallel? He claims that securing the USA’s borders are his absolute priority, and although he hasn’t yet announced that he thinks Canadians are all pot-smoking criminals, it wouldn’t be the most outlandish idea he’s ever shared with the public.
But for those who want to see policy changes that are truly substantial and effective at upholding the integrity of the American border, there has been constructive talk of some potentially viable solutions:
Perhaps we need more drug-detecting dogs to be stationed at each border crossing between Canada and the US in order to supplement the inspections of CBP officers.
Some also suggest streamlining the NEXUS application process to allow for more people to receive pre-clearance for expedited travel between Canada and the US.
Others argue that the American CBP should implement a ‘systematic random sampling’ approach to conducting secondary inspections of Canadian travellers and goods entering the United States. This would mean that in addition to CBP officers using their regular discretion to make referrals to secondary inspection, every nth person (n being any number the CBP decides on), vehicle, shipment, or parcel is also required to undergo a more thorough examination. This approach would address security concerns, but likely aggravate already increasing wait times.
Whatever the outcome is, change can’t happen unless a strong dialogue is re-established between Canada and the United States. Just because we legalized marijuana north of the border, that doesn’t mean our relationship has to change, does it? The United States is our oldest ally, trading partner, and friend. As the border between us thickens, though, long-standing trade agreements get torn up, and our leaders are increasingly engaging in bizarre Twitter confrontations. It’s hard to not feel as though our countries are two old high school friends that are just drifting apart.
Hannah Geiser is a Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs student at the University of British Columbia. With a diverse professional background ranging from Canadian border security to digital marketing and communications, she aims to utilize the intersection between public policy and effective communication strategies to engage with audiences on topics related to global and domestic security.