Seattle law firm sues US government over marijuana industry border bans

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A Washington state law firm is suing the U.S. government in an attempt to gain “immediate” access to records it hopes will shed light on why some foreign nationals – particularly Canadians – have been denied entry to the United States because of their involvement in the legal cannabis industry.

The suit targeting the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was filed by Seattle-based Davis Wright Tremaine on March 6 in federal District Court for the Western District of Washington.

According to the suit, Davis Wright Tremaine seeks access to the following information:

  • Whether the CBP’s actions are within the scope of authority granted by Congress.
  • Whether the agency is acting based on any policies or procedures.
  • Whether the CBP implemented its policies or procedures in a way that complies with rules spelled out by Congress.

The law firm represents clients involved in state-legal recreational and medical cannabis businesses, many of which employ foreign nationals who travel to the United States.

Davis Wright Tremaine said the CBP has refused to produce documents in response to U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which is hampering the firm’s ability to represent its clients.

In July, a CBP official told Marijuana Business Daily that admissibility to the United States may be denied to someone merely for “working or having involvement in the legal marijuana industry in U.S. states where it is deemed legal or in Canada” given that cannabis remains illegal under U.S. law.

Since then, reports that a number of Canadian cannabis professionals have been banned for life from entering the U.S. because of their involvement in the marijuana sector have had a chilling affect across the industry.

A CBP statement issued Oct. 9, 2018 did little to ease concerns.

“If a traveler is found to be coming to the U.S. for reason related to the marijuana industry, they may be deemed inadmissible,” the CBP stated.

FOIA requests

On Sept. 27, 2018, Davis Wright Tremaine submitted FOIA requests to CBP’s main office and CBP’s Seattle field office, according to the suit.

The firm states that neither CBP nor any other federal agency has responded to the requests.

The submission to the main office sought:

“All records relating to CBP’s policies or practices of finding foreign nationals – or “aliens,” as that term is used in the Immigration and Nationality Act § 212 – inadmissible for entry to the United States based on their involvement in foreign cannabis businesses which operate lawfully under the local domestic law of the jurisdiction in which they operate … .”

The FOIA submission also sought:

“All records relating to CBP’s policies or practices referred to by Todd Owen, executive assistant commissioner for the Office of Field Operations, in the September 13, 2018 article U.S. OFFICIAL: CANADIAN MARIJUANA USERS, WORKERS AND INVESTORS RISK LIFETIME BORDER BAN, including the following statements: “If you work for the (Canadian cannabis) industry, that is grounds for inadmissibility”; and “Facilitating the proliferation of the legal marijuana industry in U.S. states where it is deemed legal or Canada may affect an individual’s admissibility to the U.S. … .”

The law firm is asking the court to declare that the CBP violated the Freedom of Information Act by not responding to its FOIA requests in a timely fashion.

Davis Wright Tremaine is also requesting that the court:

  • Order CBP to immediately disclose the requested records.
  • Award the firm reasonable costs and attorney’s fees.
  • Grant additional relief the court may deem just and proper.

Matt Lamers can be reached at