When you visit somewhere awesome, taking home a souvenir is a great way to commemorate your trip.
Sure, there are plenty of tchotchkes out there (maybe skip the Golden Gate Bridge snowglobes, given it’s not known to blizzard in that neck of the woods) but tossing a jar of special jam or a t-shirt from some delightfully-bizarre local attraction in your luggage is a time-honored part of being a tourist.
However, as cannabis tourism continues to garner attraction in the US, residents of newly legalized states like New York, Virginia, and New Mexico may be wondering just how everything works when it comes to hopping a flight with a bit of cannabis in tow.
Ditto for those who are valid medical marijuana patients or may otherwise need to travel with cannabis for less-than-recreational reasons. While hitting the airport with more than the legally-permitted amount of cannabis allowed in a state is always a big no-no, what about the gram you left in your jacket? What about simply taking a domestic flight with weed aboard?
The short answer: it’s a poorly-defined guessing game that varies by state, and will remain a risk until the day marijuana is legalized federally.
The long answer is predictably a bit more complicated.
Stretching back to the onset of medical marijuana policies, questions about what was allowed at the airport — and especially for someone traveling between two places with favorable cannabis policies — continue to be answered with a patchwork of specific airport protocols, social media updates from the TSA (seriously), and a loudening cry for federal reforms which would render the whole issue moot.
Until then, however, it’s important to understand just what the law says and what to expect when it comes to hitting the skies with a cannabis carry-on.
When It Comes to Flying, the Feds Are the Boss
This is arguably the most important thing to know when considering whether to travel with cannabis. If you want to fly from, say, Denver to Chicago — two cities in two states that each permit the consumption, sale, and possession of recreational cannabis — the rules of the state revert to federal law once your plane is in the air.
Thus, it remains technically illegal to be on a plane with cannabis, regardless of where you are traveling. That said, as more and more states continue to enact progressive policy in favor of cannabis reform, the TSA has arguably gone out of its way to insist they really aren’t interested in busting you for packing pot.
In a rather cheekily-worded Instagram post shared on April 20th, 2019, the TSA once more confirmed this stance:
“Are we cool? We like to think we’re cool,” it began. “Let us be blunt: TSA officers DO NOT search for marijuana or other illegal drugs. Our screening procedures are focused on security and detecting potential threats.”
Essentially, the TSA has long stated that while they genuinely don’t care about your cannabis, they are legally required to report any weed products they find to the local authorities. In jurisdictions where cannabis is legal, said local authorities are likely to simply ask you to return your cannabis to your car or toss it in the trash.
There are, however, exceptions, so let’s take a look at a few state-specific rules and regulations to keep in mind.
State Your Business
In 2017, an incident at the Los Angeles International (LAX) Airport in which TSA officers found cannabis in a passenger’s bag inspired local airport authorities to confirm that, in such instances, they referred the matter to local airport police. Given those officers are only empowered to enforce state law, if a passenger is in possession of what constitutes a legal amount of cannabis in the state of California (up to 28.5 grams), it is policy for LAX police to allow said passengers to proceed to their flights.
Those traveling from Denver, however, will need to be mindful of what Merry Jane’s Tasbeeh Herwees described as “a more cautious approach to cannabis” at the Denver International Airport, where items are more likely to be confiscated than returned.
That’s still a far cry from a lengthy prison sentence, but it nonetheless illustrates the need to be aware of local laws and airport practices before arriving at your terminal with a duffel of dank. Same goes for McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, where those in possession of legal amounts of cannabis risk a citation — and those holding in excess of that amount face outright arrest.
Things are notably more chill at Oregon’s Portland International Airport, where flying with cannabis within the state is all good, but trying to go farther than that is not allowed.
While it’s fair to expect major airports within newer states — like New York’s JFK, for instance — to soon announce or adopt an updated stance when it comes to taking pot on a plane, the safest course of action for now is to abide by what TSA spokesperson Bessy Guevara told Interview Magazine in 2019.
“TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs,” Guevara explained, “but in the event illegal substances are observed during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer. TSA’s response to the discovery of marijuana is the same in every state and at every airport, regardless of whether marijuana has been or is going to be legalized.”
Be aware that laws regarding the amount of cannabis one can possess and the age at which one can possess it also vary by state. In addition, the likelihood of being stopped and searched for carry-on cannabis once arriving at your destination (at least within the US) is extremely minimal.
OK, what else do you need to know?
Some airports have taken to hosting what are known as “amnesty boxes.” Often green in color (how convenient!), these on-site pot disposal receptacles are meant to offer a safe, anonymous last-minute place to bail on that joint you forgot was in your jacket pocket.
Speaking with the Washington Post, Maggie Huynh with the Chicago Police Department detailed how the O’Hare and Midway boxes would work.
“The amnesty boxes are owned by the Department of Aviation here in Chicago and serviced by us at the police department,” Huynh explained. “The boxes are where travelers can safely dispose of cannabis and cannabis products before travel.”
When it comes to leaving the US with weed on your person, beware. While Canada now enjoys a federally legal (if struggling) cannabis industry, and Mexico appears poised to join them, that doesn’t mean international borders should be crossed with a flippant attitude.
Instead, shopping local is probably the smartest move in these situations. For those located in Canada, this means you’re fine to go within the country’s borders (as long as you are of legal age and in possession of 30 grams or less). At present, Mexico’s regulations remain a work in progress and any consideration of consumption or possession within the country (to say nothing of sales) remains extremely risky.
Does being a legit medical patient give you any extra powers to fly safely with pot?
Sadly, not really. There are given airports and cities that may offer more leniency in the case of a licensed medical patient (say, allowing them to keep their medicine) but again, once you are in the sky, federal law rules.
Eric Andre’s Lawsuit Against Racially-Biased Police Searches in Airports
In October 2022, comedians Eric André and Clayton English filed a lawsuit against Clayton County Police for alleged racial profiling at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. André was stopped in Atlanta, while Clayton was stopped in Los Angeles, in what they claim was a result of an anti-narcotics trafficking initiative that they believe singles out travelers of color — and often results in cash being unfairly confiscated.
According to The Guardian, the federal lawsuit alleges that these police searches “which the Clayton county police describe as consensual, rely on coercion and are administered based on race.” The lawsuit states that 68% of travelers searched were people of color. It also argues that the program infrequently leads to drug busts, but money that’s confiscated is rarely returned to passengers, regardless if they end up being charged for drug possession.
“It was clearly racial profiling,” André said. “The experience was humiliating and dehumanizing, degrading, I had all the other passengers squeezing by me on this claustrophobic jet bridge gawking at me like I was a perpetrator…. I want to use my resources and my platform to bring national attention to this incident so that it stops.”
Big ups to André and English for calling attention to this deeply troubling problem, and hopefully the lawsuit leads to more lenient drug policies at airports throughout the country in the near future.
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