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Can you fly with marijuana within legalized states?

Reno-Tahoe International Airport has a sign in its smoking area reminding travelers that marijuana use is not allowed. (Photo: Reno-Tahoe International Airport)

In January, California joined the growing list of places where the sale of recreational marijuana is allowed, and now one in five Americans lives in a state where buying pot can be a tourist activity.

But if you’re considering traveling with pot, be careful.

Marijuana is still an illegal drug under federal law and post-security areas at airports are ruled by federal agencies. So, as in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Alaska and Nevada, bringing legally purchased pot past a security checkpoint in the country’s most populated state can still trigger a law enforcement response.

The Transportation Security Administration says its officers remain focused on security and detecting weapons, explosives and other threats to aviation and passengers — not on sniffing out drugs. But if a TSA officer does find marijuana or another illegal substance during the security screening of carry-on or checked baggage, the policy is to call in local airport law enforcement, said TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers.

“The passenger’s originating and destination airports are not taken into account,” said Dankers. “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.”

But at most commercial airports in California, as in other states where possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana is now legal, once airport law enforcement steps in, nothing much usually happens.

According to the Los Angeles Airport Police, which operates at Los Angeles International Airport and several other Southern California airports, if someone is stopped by the TSA with a state-legal amount of medical of recreational marijuana, airport police would not charge them with anything, “Because it is not a crime.”

The same goes for John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

“If the TSA calls us [about finding marijuana], we’d go up and make sure it is within the legal quantity. If it is, we’d just stand by while the passenger decides what to do with it,” said Lieutenant Mark Gonzales, airport police services bureau chief with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. “TSA may not want it to fly, but that doesn’t mean it is illegal in California.”

Gonzales says so far his team hasn’t been called to the airport checkpoint by TSA to deal with a marijuana issue. “People are reading the law and seem to know what they need to do to get through the checkpoint,” said Gonzales. “I don’t think a lot of people are risking it.”

To alert fliers to the rules about traveling with recreational pot purchased legally in California — and to advertise their cannabis company — in November, Organa Brands ran an ad in the bottom of the bins at the security checkpoints at Ontario International Airport. (Photo: Organa Brands)

In airports that don’t ban cannabis property-wide, local law enforcement called over by TSA officers will outline a passenger’s options, which may include disposing of the product in a trash bin or locked amnesty box, giving it to a friend in the terminal, or putting it in their car.

To alert fliers to the rules about traveling with recreational pot purchased legally in California — and to advertise their cannabis company — in November, Organa Brands ran an ad in the bottom of the bins at the security checkpoints at Ontario International Airport.

The message read: “Cannabis is legal. Traveling with it is not. Leave it in California.”

“We were very confident in the positive message that the trays carried,” said Organa Brands spokesman Jackson Tilley, although he says the company wasn’t too surprised when a month into the campaign the airport asked that the cannabis messages in the trays be removed. “If the landscape changes and cannabis ads are welcomed in airports, we’d be thrilled to run a campaign again,” said Tilley.

There are currently no marijuana-related checkpoint tray ads, signs or “amnesty disposal bins” at the San Francisco, Long Beach or other California airports contacted for this story. But in Nevada, where sales of recreational marijuana became legal in July 2017, it’s a different story.

Reno-Tahoe International Airport has a sign in its smoking area reminding travelers that marijuana use is not allowed. “In general, we have not seen a big impact from this new law at the airport,” said airport spokeswoman Heidi Jared, “However, we are closely watching other airports and how they are handling this unique situation.”

At McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, there is a formal, airport-wide ban on possessing (or advertising) marijuana, with notices about the Clark County’s Commission’s ruling posted on the airport’s website. And, starting next month, signs about the policy and amnesty boxes for marijuana and other cannabis products will be installed at key locations at McCarran, including at the airport’s consolidated car rental facility.

“These disposal boxes will be outside of the buildings, not at the checkpoints,” said McCarran spokesman Chris Jones. “The intent being [cannabis products] are not allowable anywhere inside the buildings, be it pre- or post-security.”

Meanwhile, in Colorado, which back in 2014 was the first state to license stores to sell recreational marijuana, Denver International Airport still maintains its policy of prohibiting marijuana anywhere on airport property.

“Police ask passengers found with [marijuana] to discard the drug,” said airport spokesman Heath Montgomery. “But we’ve had so few instances that we don’t track these contacts anymore.”

Marijuana is still an illegal drug under federal law – and post-security areas at airports are ruled by federal agencies.

Can I Bring My Marijuana On A Plane?

Free Book Preview Cannabis Capital

With marijuana legalization happening in new regions across the country, people may assume they can travel with cannabis when they fly. However, because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, traveling with it on a plane, even from one legal state to another, is a crime.

In Illinois, where adult-use weed sales just became legal in January 2020, officials have placed “cannabis amnesty” boxes at both Midway and O’Hare airports to give passengers a chance to dump their weed, no questions asked (or arrests made). Similar amnesty boxes have been used in Aspen, Colorado, and Las Vegas. They fill up.

That’s indicative of how much public officials think this could become a problem. DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman told the Daily Herald in Chicago: “There is a misconception that if you can buy the stuff legally — you can take it wherever you go. That will create some unpleasant surprises, particularly at our airports.”

The potential unpleasant surprises include arrest.

Travelers need to know the risks. It could come down to a situation where officers are involved. For some people, cannabis demand is worth the gamble.

Jeffrey D. Welsh, cannabis attorney, and partner at Vicente Sederberg, explains: “Cannabis is still listed as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act. TSA’s primary job is to detect potential threats to aviation and its passengers (terrorism), so I would say they are not highly concerned about a little cannabis for personal use. That’s the job of local law enforcement and federal drug agents.”

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does not, under its official policy, look for marijuana. But it did clarify in 2019 that if they find cannabis, they can make the choice to call in local law enforcement. At that point, you are at the mercy of local laws. How local police approach cases involving small amounts of marijuana possession vary state-to-state.

In some cases, states have decriminalized marijuana possession and the most you will face is a fine. In other states, cannabis remains illegal and comes with a more severe fine and even arrest. At the very least, there’s an unfortunate chance you will miss your flight.

It’s a case-by-case situation, much like when people transport cannabis from a legal state to an illegal one, an issue that is arising on state borders such as those between Ohio and Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, and Idaho and Oregon.

“It would be a violation of Federal law via the Interstate Commerce Clause,” says Welsh. “The reason crossing state lines with cannabis is a violation of federal law even if that cannabis law legally purchased in the originating state, is that under Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the Interstate Commerce Clause is regulated by the federal government. So – it is illegal to move cannabis across any state lines without violating federal law. Federal law always trumps state law.”

That’s not stopping people. In Los Angeles, arrests at the airport for cannabis possession have soared 166 percent since adult-use legalization in 2018. This includes both those with small amounts for personal use and those with pounds of weed in their bags, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Others have been arrested as they arrive in other states, such as the Texas man arrested in Austin for flying with five pounds of marijuana from California.

What are the TSA rules around taking marijuana on planes?

Federal law bans people from taking marijuana on flights, even if you are flying from one legal state to another. And even if you are flying within a legal state, you still must go through a TSA checkpoint, which is controlled under federal law. That means technically you are committing a crime and the TSA can call in local authorities, although that apparently is a rare occurrence in such cases.

CBD products, which contain little THC, are only legal if that level is less than the federal limit of 0.3%.

On its website, the TSA states that “screening procedures are focused on security and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers. Accordingly, TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs.”

The TSA goes on: “But if any illegal substance is discovered during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.” The statement concludes: “The final decision rests with the TSA officer on whether an item is allowed through the checkpoint.”

“Typically, airports are owned by the city, but the federal authorities, TSA and the FAA, are authorized to operate airports,” says Welsh. “If, during a screening process at an airport, a TSA officer discovers an item that may violate federal law, the matter is referred to local law enforcement. Which, in a state that has legalized cannabis for recreational use, likely means you’re simply going to have to throw your cannabis away, unless you are attempting to get through security with an excessive amount of cannabis that is clearly meant to be sold at your destination.”

For the cautious among us, that’s enough to leave marijuana at home. If you are thinking, “I like my odds,” just know that technically, you are breaking the law.

What travelers need to know about the legality of flying with cannabis