By Oliver Lazenby
Walking by Evergreen Cannabis in Blaine, local lawyer Len Saunders points out an SUV with a Canadian license plate – a common sight outside the county’s northernmost legal marijuana shop. Saunders, an immigration attorney, didn’t expect marijuana legalization to change his career, but it has.
Saunders has developed a reputation as a national leader in helping those barred from the U.S. for admitting to using marijuana – a trend that’s accelerated, Saunders said, and piqued the interest of journalists around the continent.
In the last month, Saunders has been quoted extensively in articles in Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal and Maclean’s, a national Canadian news magazine.
The Men’s Journal story, titled Inside the Marijuana Showdown at the Canadian Border, called Saunders “the go-to guy for Canadians who unexpectedly find themselves turned into international pot pariahs.”
While the trend has boosted Saunders’ career, he’s frustrated that Canadians are being barred from the U.S. for using a substance that’s legal in Washington state.
“It’s great for business,” Saunders said. “But I’d rather make my money in green cards; I’d rather make my money in naturalizations. I feel like Canadians are getting screwed. It’s a colossal waste of time and money and the only one who benefits is me.”
Though marijuana will soon be legal on both sides of the border, the federal government controls the U.S. border. In the federal government’s eyes, marijuana is illegal, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials can deny access to Canadians who admit to using it – often, they get a lifetime ban.
When that happens, they often find Saunders. Saunders can’t reverse the ban, but he can file a waiver for his clients that allow them to visit the U.S. The waivers are temporary and usually expire after one to five years.
There’s a $585 filing charge just to apply for the waiver, on top of Saunders’ legal fees. Since they are temporary, those banned from the U.S. often become Saunders’ clients for life, he said.
Since Washington is the first border state to legalize marijuana, and the state’s busiest crossing is in Blaine, Saunders got early and frequent experience with the issue. He now gets one or two calls a week from Canadians who were denied entry at the border.
“Until recently, I’ve been the only immigration attorney in Blaine. So when someone has a problem and they Google search, my name comes up,” Saunders said.
Saunders has secured hundreds of waivers for his clients. Until recently every waiver application for people barred for admitting to marijuana use had been granted. That changed this year, on April 20, when a client’s waiver application was rejected for the first time in Saunders’ career.
“I’m hoping that’s not a sign of things to come, but it could be,” Saunders said.