Friday, May 18, 2007

Crossing the border: A cautionary tale

Planning a trip to the US any time soon? Don't admit you've ever used illegal drugs.

Back in the early 1990s, I made several trips to the US to attend conferences focused on helping people to recover from drug addiction. I recall one experience when my carry-on luggage was searched and the customs officer pulled out a book about addiction recovery and asked me what it was about, so I told him. I don't remember if I mentioned then that I was a recovering drug addict (clean & sober 20 years now), but I certainly do remember the suspicious look on his face as he paused for what seemed like a long time to decide if I should be allowed to board my flight to LA. It was nerve wracking and frustrating because it had already been years since I used anything that was contraband and I had never been charged or convicted of anything. His ignorance of what it meant to be a "recovering" person stunned me.

If I'd had the same experience in 2007 however, there's a good chance I'd have been pulled aside and questioned about possible drug use and been denied entry into the US.

Via The Tyee, here's why:

Andrew Feldmar, a well-known Vancouver psychotherapist, rolled up to the Blaine border crossing last summer as he had hundreds of times in his career. At 66, his gray hair, neat beard, and rimless glasses give him the look of a seasoned intellectual. He handed his passport to the U.S. border guard and relaxed, thinking he would soon be with an old friend in Seattle. The border guard turned to his computer and googled "Andrew Feldmar."

The psychotherapist's world was about to turn upside down.
The Blaine border guard explained that Feldmar had been pulled out of the line as part of a random search. He seemed friendly, even as he took away Feldmar's passport and car keys. While the contents of his car were being searched, Feldmar and the officer talked. He asked Feldmar what profession he was in.

When Feldmar said he was psychologist, the official typed his name into his Internet search engine. Before long the customs guard was engrossed in an article Feldmar had published in the spring 2001 issue of the journal Janus Head. The article concerned an acid trip Feldmar had taken in London, Ontario, and another in London, England, almost forty years ago. It also alluded to the fact that he had used hallucinogenics as a "path" to understanding self and that in certain cases, he reflected, it could "be preferable to psychiatry." Everything seemed to collapse around him, as a quiet day crossing the border began to turn into a nightmare.

He was told to sit down on a folding chair and for hours he wondered where this was going. He checked his watch and thought hopelessly of his friend who was about to land at the Seattle airport. Three hours later, the official motioned him into a small, barren room with an American flag. He was sitting on one side and Feldmar was on the other. The official said that under the Homeland Security Act, Feldmar was being denied entry due to "narcotics" use. LSD is not a narcotic substance, Feldmar tried to explain, but an entheogen. The guard wasn't interested in technicalities. He asked for a statement from Feldmar admitting to having used LSD and he fingerprinted Feldmar for an FBI file.

Then Feldmar disbelievingly listened as he learned that he was being barred from ever entering the United States again. The officer told him he could apply to the Department of Homeland Security for a waiver, if he wished, and gave him a package, with the forms.

That wasn't the end of it - at that point, anyway. Feldmar decided to try to obtain a waiver but found the legal costs to be far too prohibitive. Read the rest of his story. It's an Orwellian tale.

When Feldmar looks back on what has happened, he concludes that he was operating out of a sense of safety that has become dated in the last six years, since 9-11. His real mistake was to write about his drug experiences and post this on the web, even in a respected journal like Janus Head. He acknowledges that he had not considered posting on the Internet the risk that it turned out to be. So many of his generation share his experience in experimenting with drugs, after all. He believed it was safe to communicate about the past from the depth of retrospection and that this would be a useful grain of personal wisdom to share with others. He now warns his friends to think twice before they post anything about their personal lives on the web.

There's a lot to be said for anonymity on the web. This story proves that reality. Furthermore, the idea that some border guard decided to use Google to aid him in his search for information is just bizarre - as if the US government doesn't already have trillions of bits of data garnered from every possible source they can get away with infiltrating to try and nail someone for whatever reason, with or without a warrant.

Unfortunately now, since "9/11 changed everything" (ie. it allowed Buscho to act like authoritarian dictators and intrude into peoples' lives like never before) our very ability to honestly write about our lives on the internet - whether you're an American or not - has been severely impacted. That is yet another chilling effect of the fascist mindset that has so permeated North America's governments. Our freedoms are being chipped away from every possible angle and our ability to freely cross our borders is being stifled - by Googling border guards and by a US administration that rarely, if ever, admits its mistakes. Take the case of Maher Arar still being on the US no-fly list after being exonerated of any terrorist ties by our government, for example. I suspect that once Canada's no-fly list comes into effect on June 18th, we'll be hearing many more such stories of innocent people being denied entry into Fortress America.

So, if you write using your real name, be aware. What you share could come back to haunt you and that winter dream trip to Hawaii could suddenly become one of your worst nightmares.

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