Two Canadians have been given lifetime entry bans to the United States after they attempted to enter the country carrying cannabidiol oil or CBD, a popular cannabis extract legal in Canada that's often used to treat pain and anxiety.

Blaine, Washington-based immigration lawyer Len Saunders, who represents both travellers, told CTV News during both encounters, which took place over the last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents found the CBD oil during secondary inspections.

“It’s as bad as having marijuana itself, or cocaine, or any controlled substance,” Saunders said.

In early August, Saunders said his client, whom CTV News is identifying as B.H., landed at Seattle's SeaTac International Airport from Tokyo.

B.H., who is a Canadian citizen living in Japan, said he was randomly selected for additional screening, where agents who searched his bags found two bottles of CBD oil.

“Immediately they said, ‘We think this has THC in it’,” he told CTV News. “And I said, ‘OK, I really don’t think so.”

When CBP agents tested the bottles, B.H. said one of the two turned up positive for THC, the psychoactive in marijuana that can raise red flags, which he found confusing because they were from the same source.

“Don’t necessarily trust the labeling on the product you’re buying,” he said. 

Saunders said his client was upfront with agents, and thought because marijuana products were legal in Washington State, he was OK to bring in the oil.

B.H. was given a choice to be deported to Japan or be put on the next flight to Canada.

In the second case, in mid-August, Saunders said a 21-year-old female heading to Point Roberts for the weekend was stopped at the border crossing and asked by U.S. CBP agents if she was carrying "leafy substances."

Saunders said she replied "no," but when the Ontario university student, who was spending the summer in Metro Vancouver, was sent inside for a secondary inspection, agents found CBD oil.

In both cases, Saunders said CBP agents confiscated the oil, issued US$500 fines, and lifetime entry bans to the U.S.

“It’s legal in Canada. It’s legal in Washington State. But under U.S. federal laws, these antiquated laws, it’s illegal,” Saunders said.

Both travellers can now apply for travel waivers, a complicated and expensive process that Saunders said includes letters of reference along with proof of remorse.

'Every situation is different,' U.S. border officials say

When CTV News reached out to U.S. Customs & Border Protection for clarification about these cases, a CBP spokesperson reiterated that it remains illegal to import marijuana under U.S. federal law.

When asked about specific marijuana-derived products like CBD oil, spokesperson Jason Givens directed CTV to a website related to hemp seed importation that read in part: "Products containing THC, the hallucinogenic substance in marijuana, are illegal to import. Products that do not cause THC to enter the human body are therefore legal products."

Saunders couldn't say how much THC, if any, his clients' oils contained, or if the content was clearly labelled. CBD oils for sale vary from high THC concentrations to little-to-no THC content.

When CTV News pressed the CBP's Givens on whether a Canadian carrying CBD oil that was labeled as containing "no THC" would be stopped at the border and subjected to a lifetime entry ban, he responded:

"Items labeled 'THC free' sometimes contain detectable amounts of THC… every situation is unique and determinations about admissibility are made by an immigration officer based on the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time, including responses to questions that are posed by CBP officers."

On the Canadian side, Canada Border Services Agency leaves no ambiguity about whether marijuana or cannabis-derived products can be carried across the border, in either direction.

Its new cannabis slogan "Don't bring it in. Don't take it out." features in a number of CBSA videos, along with the guidance that "transporting cannabis across the border in any form – including any oils containing THC or cannabidiol (CBD)…remains a serious criminal offence."

In a bizarre twist, when B.H. was deported to Canada, CBP agents gave him back the bottle of CBD oil that tested negative for THC.

But when he landed at YVR, he said Canada Border Services Agency agents detained him and confiscated the remaining oil. 

CBSA spokesperson Jacqueline Callin told CTV News that CBSA officers “use their discretion…in determining whether any regulatory or criminal enforcement would be appropriate.”

She added that while it is a serious criminal offence to import or export cannabis, “if a traveller declares that they are in possession of cannabis at the first opportunity given, they minimize the risk of the CBSA taking any enforcement actions.”

B.H. said he wasn’t arrested or charged. 

Expert: Leave it at home

Nearly a year after legalization, Saunders thinks the Canadian government could do a better job of warning travellers about the dangers of carrying oils, edibles and other cannabis-derived products across borders.

“Most people think what’s the problem, it’s CBD oil,” Saunders said.

He added most travellers know not to take buds, rolls or anything "leafy" across borders, but these two cases show travellers still have substantial questions surrounding other cannabis-derived products.

Responding to Saunders’ concerns, the CBSA’s Jacqueline Callin wrote in part: “The CBSA is committed to informing travelers…and is doing so through the development of online awareness tools.” Tools which include videos, social media and web updates.

The CBSA did not directly address Saunders request for improved signage to potentially include pictures of edibles and other pot products.

But even if improvements are made to signs at airports and near land borders, which Saunders called "inadequate," it will still be up to each traveller to know the rules around cannabis and plan ahead.

Saunders' advice? Leave anything contains or might be suspected of containing cannabis, THC or CBD at home. If you get stopped at the border, never lie to an agent, but you can ask to withdraw your request to enter the U.S. and return to Canada. And if it's legal at your destination, buy it on the other side of the border.