If Alan Ranta could go back in time, he'd refuse to answer the question.
A couple of weeks ago, the Vancouver music writer drove south to attend a music festival in Washington State. When he reached the border he was asked if he had ever smoked marijuana. He chose to tell the truth, which in his case was yes. That candid admission immediately earned him a pair of handcuffs — and an order to turn around and head home. He now faces being barred for life from entering the U.S.
According to one Vancouver-area lawyer, there have been dozens of these cases over the last few years, all along the B.C.-Washington border.
Ranta shared his recent border experience with As it Happens host Carol Off from Vancouver.
"I came up, and because I was going to a music festival, I had a bunch of really colourful outfits and what-not to wear there," he says. "It's a music festival and I like having fun. But I guess it raised the ire of the border guy. He didn't like how colourful it was — he mentioned that in an offhand comment. But ultimately, he only asked me two questions: 'where are you going?' and 'are you hiding anybody in the back?'"
Ranta says he answered straightforwardly — he was going to a music festival, and that he wasn't hiding anyone. But he was summarily ordered to head inside the border office for further questioning.
After waiting for about half-an-hour followed by more questions, Ranta was informed that a search of his car had revealed a small change purse labelled 'weed money' — which Ranta maintains at no point contained either marijuana or money.
"I had some pills in it — Melatonin, Aspirin...for bedtime," he says.
"After that, I got led into a very small, concrete-box of a room — with just a bench and a toilet. And handcuffed. And then interrogated about my pot use."
Ranta says he answered "yes" in response to whether he had ever smoked marijuana. "I was open and honest. I said 'yes, I smoke it regularly...last smoked it a couple of days ago. It helps my anxiety.' That led to follow-up questions, like, where have you done it, how do you smoke it, how often do you do it, that kind of thing. All seemingly innocuous questions, considering the state I was trying to go to has had legal pot for over three years."
Ranta says he has never before been arrested for drug use.
"That was the terrifying part of it. I've never been handcuffed before — let alone detained and arrested in Canada," he says. "I knew I shouldn't have answered the way I did. But when you're in that moment, it's quite terrifying. It's very intimidating. They know what they're doing."
Ranta says after more than three hours of questioning, and despite not having any drugs with him, he was barred from entry to the States. He must now apply for a waiver costing hundreds of dollars — with no guarantee that he will ever be allowed back into the U.S.