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I was under the impression that immigration officers only cared about people trying to smuggle drugs on/in their person or in their luggage. Even watching Border Security Australia, many non-national travelers have had their bags swabbed, come back for traces of drugs and still let into the country.

On the other hand, I've read online and watched many episodes especially regarding American/Canadian officers who turn travelers around that admit they partake in recreational drug use even without them attempting to smuggle drugs or having any drugs charge. They usually come across this while browsing their phone and looking at images of them smoking weed/snorting cocaine.

Is this common?

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  • 33
    As a general rule you should never, ever admit to any illegal activity to an immigration official, unless said activity is already on your criminal record.
    – JonathanReez
    Feb 1 at 19:44
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    What you don't usually see on those TV shows is the 99.99% of people who sail right through immigration despite having done drugs or whatever. There's always a reason for picking the particular people who end up in secondary. Occasionally that reason is the border officer was having a bad day, but in almost all circumstances there was something specific to set off suspicion (even if it later turns out to be unfounded). Feb 2 at 12:06
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    @TooTea you never lie to an officer regarding your PAST convictions. They have no right to put you on trial. Incriminating photos? Doctored photos? Evidence? it can be the same object, it is an evidence only during a trial.
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 2 at 16:36
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    @JonathanReez I would modify your statement to say "Never admit to any act that is illegal in the country you are trying to enter". Prostitution and marijuana are legal in various places around the world but try explaining that to a US immigration official.
    – Peter M
    Feb 2 at 16:38
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    @EarlGrey immigration officers may not be able to put you on trial, but if they find evidence of a past crime they can pass that evidence to the prosecutor, who can put you on trial. In many jurisdictions, not only can they do that, but they have a duty to do it. And in the US, immigration officers can exclude non-citizens from the US if the non-citizen has engaged in an act while outside the US that would be a crime if done inside the US. No trial needed, with a very low standard of evidence. A non-VWP traveler can insist on taking it before an immigration judge, but most don't.
    – phoog
    Feb 2 at 23:44
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I don't know if there is an answer for "anglophone nations" in general—countries make their own laws and these laws can differ even when they share a common language or colonial history—but in the specific case of the United States, 8 USC § 1182(a)(1)(A)(iv) prohibits anyone "who is determined (in accordance with regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services) to be a drug abuser or addict" from entering the country, even if that person has not been convicted of any crimes in any country. Part (a)(2)(A)(i)(II) of the same section prohibits anyone who "admits having committed…a violation of any law…relating to a controlled substance," again without any requirement for a charge or conviction of such a violation.

It may not surprise you to learn that US officials, at least sometimes, interpret these rules rather broadly, and occasionally deny entry to people who merely admit past marijuana use, even in countries where this is legal.

There are additional further restrictions on people who have been convicted of drug trafficking or other crimes, but this doesn't seem to be the main focus of your question.

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    Don't forget the good old Moral Turpitude
    – Peter M
    Feb 2 at 16:35
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    Don't forget 8 USC § 1182(a)(2)(A)(i)(II) which bans anyone "..convicted of, or who admits having committed...a violation of...any law...relating to a controlled substance..."
    – krubo
    Feb 2 at 18:38
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    Being from the US and reading through this answer, I'm kind of surprised and not surprised at the same exact time. Feb 2 at 19:29
  • @krubo thanks, I've updated the answer to include this.
    – mlc
    Feb 2 at 21:52
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    @krubo It's worth noting that an "admission" that consists merely of discussing past drug use with some friends or something like that is not a legally valid admission for the purposes of 212(a)(2)(A)(i). See 9 FAM 302.3-2(B)(4). Of course, this will not stop CBP from interpreting the statute overbroadly, as most of them don't know what they're doing.
    – Brian
    Feb 3 at 1:21
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These style of questions, like "are you of have you ever been a member of the Nazi Party or Communist Party?", are there to give a blanket reason for revocation of visa and instant deportation for providing false information on the form if it can be shown you did lie on the tick boxes.

If you have never been convicted or arrested, and not blasted out of your noggin at the border, then say No.

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    I would recommend caution here. The Americans in particular have been known to bust people on making false statements, which has the small problem of being a felony.
    – Kevin
    Feb 3 at 5:10
  • @Kevin yep, you better be damn sure your phone doesn't have a pic of you hitting a bong if you just told them you never smoked marijuana before.
    – eps
    Feb 3 at 19:16
-2

Is the question, "have you ever used illegal drugs" part of a long list of questions presented together? If so, it's what I call a "no list"; if you know what's good for you you will answer "no" to them all, every time. As a general rule, they have no way of knowing what you actually did, unless of course you answered "yes". (If they do see a "yes" they will start asking a lot more questions in that area.)

As a backup, make up a story that explains why "no" is really the correct answer, something along the lines of "but I didn't inhale". If it comes down to it, you don't need to convince them of anything except that you didn't think you weren't intentionally lying.

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  • I love your "no list" approach and use it myself in every aspect of my life (KISS). As someone once said, after nor inhaling, I did not ... Lewinski ... giggity Feb 2 at 13:52
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    The advice from lawyers to Canadians who have legally smoked marijuana and are asked whether they have done so by a US customs officer is that they should immediately "withdraw their application to enter the US". Then go find another customs officer to process them. This is because answering "yes" may get them denied entry, and possibly long term problem, if you say "no" and they have evidence that you have then that's deception and will get you in much worse trouble. It's also with noting that lawyers are never allowed to recommend their clients lie to officials. Feb 2 at 14:50
  • From what I know of US law, arguments along the lines of "but I didn't inhale" don't do much good. At best, you get to use them in a courtroom the following year, having spent the intervening time in detention awaiting trial on felony charges. Feb 2 at 14:55
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    It's not a good general advice to always answer no to all such question. For example, if there are cases of convictions on your record, then they will find out that you've lied and that can grant you a very large number of years you'll be denied entry. (the QA doesn't have any record, but still, this answer was a general instead of specific advice)
    – vsz
    Feb 2 at 17:33
  • You are not inhaling prior to lighting it, how is that not possession. Generally all government forms have an obvious answer to their questions, otherwise you could say that you didn't understand (and yet justify answering something that you don't understand). You need to be able to defend your answers, and those answers need to be the ones that accomplish your goal (whatever the form). --- The truth will set you free (if you aren't doing anything wrong), dishonesty will most likely result in imprisonment, a fine, or being banned for life.
    – Rob
    Feb 3 at 4:09

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