With the laws surrounding cannabis — both marijuana and hemp — constantly changing, confusion for cannabis consumers arises when it comes to traveling to and from states where weed is legal. This is especially true when it comes to flying with weed.
Cannabis consumers should empower themselves with an understanding of the laws and regulations concerning cannabis so that they can consume weed legally and fly safely. First and foremost, that means knowing that marijuana possession is illegal under federal law.
Consumers need to know that if they walk into an airport, they can be walking into federal jurisdiction territory or land overseen by airport police in local jurisdictions. Even states with adult-use markets do not all have cannabis-friendly airports. Weed purchased by consumers in a legal cannabis state must be consumed in that state, as each state only controls the laws within its own borders. Additionally, cannabis isn’t allowed on any type of United States federal property because it is still illegal on the federal level, and has been prohibited since 1937
This is all to say: Flying with weed is complicated. So here’s what travelers should consider regarding flying with weed in the United States.
The TSA Isn’t Looking for Weed, but if They Find it…
When it comes to cannabis, the perspective of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been yes, it is illegal but no, agents do not look for it. On May 4, 2019, the TSA stated that its agents do not prioritize marijuana searches, but if they find your stash, they will treat all cannabis products, including flower, edibles, or capsules, the same way they treat any illicit substance. The repercussions vary, depending on the state.
The TSA’s current policy on medical marijuana states: “TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs, but if any illegal substance is discovered during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.”
TSA spokesperson Lorie Dankers told USA Today that the TSA responds the same when it finds weed in every state: “The passenger’s originating and destination airports are not taken into account. 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.”
In cannabis-legal states, if an adult is found with an amount within the legal limit, they will either be sent on their way or given a fine, depending on the state. In non-legal states, travellers are risking a misdemeanor or felony drug charge.
On April 20, 2019, the TSA’s Instagram posted a photo of a cannabis leaf with a caption that explained how little their agents prioritize looking for marijuana: “Are we cool? We like to think we’re cool. We want you to have a pleasant experience at the airport and arrive safely at your destination. But getting caught while trying to fly with marijuana or cannabis-infused products can really harsh your mellow.
“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. But in the event a substance appears to be marijuana or a cannabis-infused product, we’re required by federal law to notify local law enforcement. This includes items that are used for medicinal purposes.”
The TSA updated its stance on medical marijuana from No to Yes with “Special Instructions.” The special instructions state that FDA-approved medicines containing cannabidiol (CBD), such as Epidiolex, are allowed, along with any CBD product containing less than 0.3% THC. Anything outside of those bounds, above 0.3% THC, is an “illegal substance.”
Once a traveler steps onto the aircraft, they’re within federal jurisdiction. Every aircraft and airline in the U.S. abides by federal law imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which prohibits marijuana on airplanes.
This means that it is illegal to possess marijuana above 0.3% THC content on any aircraft. Marijuana remains a schedule I substance under the Federal Controlled Substances Act in the eyes of the federal government, and is therefore illegal in the eyes of the FAA. The FAA makes no mention of hemp or CBD in its policies for travelers, but it does point travelers to the TSA guidelines.
The FAA did state in June 2019, that while the public has asked many questions regarding the legality of CBD, its employees are still being tested for THC, and CBD is still illegal for pilots, Marijuana Moment reported. The Aeromedical Advisory statement from the FAA clarifies that pilots should not be taking CBD that isn’t approved by the FDA because, “product labels are often inaccurate,” meaning they could still test positive for THC.
The bulletin published in the agency magazine FAA Safety Briefing reads: “Although most CBD products claim to have under 0.3% THC, they could contain high enough levels of THC to cause a positive drug test. Use of CBD oil is not accepted as an affirmative defense against a positive drug test.”
Airlines abide by federal jurisdiction, not the airport’s policy or state’s law. If any member of a flight crew finds marijuana, travelers could be subject to criminal penalties under federal law.
“The FAA pretty much has undisputed jurisdiction over federal airways,” David Y. Bannard, a Boston-based attorney who specializes in airport law, told Weedmaps News. “So, even though you may be flying from Seattle to Los Angeles, over Oregonand states that have legalized marijuana, the fact that you’re in federal airways gives the FAA some jurisdiction there.”
Major Airports in Adult-Use States
Consumer confusion arises in major airports that are located in cannabis-legal states. Even though marijuana may be legal for people ages 21 and older in those states, each state’s law does not apply to the airport.
While some airports, such as Los Angeles International (LAX), have released statements that state they account for travelers possessing a legal amount of cannabis, other airports, such as Denver International Airport (DIA), are not as modern in their regulations.
Here’s where each of these major airports stand on weed:
The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission lists out the state’s newly-minted recreational market laws. The Massachusetts law states that adults 21 and older can possess 1 ounce (28.35 grams) legally, but it states only license business transportation holders may transport cannabis.
Boston Logan International Airport (BOS), the primary airport serving New England, has no policy listed on its website. In fact, representatives of the airport recently warned to the local news outlets it would be cracking down on those travelers who try to bring cannabis on their flight.
If the amount of weed found on a traveller is above the legal limit, Massachusetts state Police will “take law enforcement action,” including seizing the marijuana products either by disposing of it or placing it in their car, before sending the traveller “on their way”, Massachusetts State Police spokesperson Dave Procopio told the Boston Globe.
Procopio continued in his statement to The Globe: “If the amount is within the legal limit for possession, we will not seize it and, generally, will tell the possessor that unless the airline will allow them to carry it aboard the flight, they have to leave the screening area and dispose of the marijuana or give it to someone who is not flying and who can legally possess it.”
Massachusetts says cannabis advertisements are illegal in every airport or public transportation space. None of the airports within Massport’s umbrella has marijuana amnesty boxes.
If a traveler is in possession of the legal amount or less in California (1 ounce, or 28.35 grams), San Francisco Airport (SFO) will not take their cannabis. In a similar vein to LAX’s policy, SFO Public Information Officer Doug Yakel told San Francisco Weekly in 2017: “The airport doesn’t have a specific policy on this. It’s really more of a law enforcement issue.”
Yakel continued: “As a rule of thumb, our law enforcement personnel would not confiscate a personal use amount from someone heading to a location where it’s legal, but they would warn the person that they might have issues at their destination, where possession is still illegal.”
LAX policy states that cannabis is allowed through security checkpoints, as long as it stays within the legal limit for an adult at least 21 years old, which is 1 ounce, or 28.5 grams. If travelers bring 1 ounce (28.35 grams) or less to LAX, they are safe, but they cannot consume cannabis anywhere on the airport’s grounds.
LAX’s official policy states: [Airport police] officers, who are California Peace Officers, have no jurisdiction to arrest individuals if they are in compliance with state law. However, airport guests should be aware that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening stations are under federal jurisdiction. Also, passengers should be aware that marijuana laws vary state by state and they are encouraged to check the laws of the states in which they plan to travel.”
The L.A. Times reported an increase of 166% marijuana trafficking arrests last year, which “smuggling” in these cases was defined as those who tried to bring more than the legal possession limit in their checked luggage or carry-on bag.
The percentage sounds stark, but reflects just 101 total marijuana trafficking arrests in 2018 out of 87 million passengers that travel annually through LAX, the second-busiest airport in the U.S. LAX arrest records showed the most popular flights for those travellers caught trying to fly with larger amounts of weed included destinations of Chicago, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Dallas.
Denver International Airport (DIA) strictly prohibits marijuana. The airport also does not allow any cannabis companies to advertise in its space, which is another limiting marketing factor for the industry in the state. Denver doesn’t care what LAX says, DIA airport will not budge on its cannabis policy until federal legalization is cleared.
If they do find amount within the legal limit of cannabis on a traveler, the TSA guards make them throw it away or put it in their car if possible.
Its policy states: “Marijuana at Denver International Airport It shall be unlawful to: (a) possess, consume, use, display, transfer, distribute, sell, transport grow Marijuana on any property or facilities owned by Denver International Airport; (b) sell, display, or advertise any product bearing the image, likeness, description, or name of marijuana or marijuana-themed paraphernalia; and (c) advertise a marijuana-related business or establishment.
“If and when a federal law changes, then I think we will completely revisit that policy,” DIA representative Emily Williams told The Denver Channel in 2018. DIA does not have cannabis amnesty or drop boxes, but two smaller airports in Colorado do. Fliers will find cannabis amnesty boxes on airport property in Aspen (ASE) and Colorado Springs (COS).
The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA, or Sea-Tac) states cannabis is not allowed on federal property. The airport does not have cannabis amnesty boxes.
While Sea-Tac does not list an official policy anywhere on its website, Port of Seattle police told Puget Sound CBS affiliate KIRO-TV in 2016 that they have “never confiscated pot or made a single marijuana arrest since it was legalized” in 2014.
If they do find cannabis on a traveler in Sea-Tac, they will allow that person to keep it if it’s under the legal limit, which in Washington is a unique sliding scale depending on the type of cannabis product.
Its state regulations explain the limits as: Adults ages 21 and older can purchase up to 1 ounce (28.35 grams) of usable marijuana (the harvested flowers, or “bud”); 16 ounces (454 grams) of marijuana-infused edibles in solid form; 72 fluid ounces (2.13 liters) in liquid form; and 7 grams of marijuana concentrates.
Signs posted in and around the airport state: “Please be advised recreational marijuana is not permitted on flights travelling out of Sea-Tac.”
Portland International Airport (PDX) allows medical marijuana patients to travel with cannabis, but recreational marijuana is strictly prohibited, as its largest airport points to federal law.
PDX’s policies on both medical and recreational marijuana states: “Port Police will not seize marijuana from travelers when traveling out of PDX” as long as the traveler holds a valid medical marijuana card in the state and the amount sits within the legal limit of possession. The statement continues to warn that this policy does not carry over to any destination outside of Oregon, and that, “upon arrival you are subject to laws in that state.”
The airport’s statement on recreational marijuana is more strict. It explains to travelers that, recreational marijuana cannot be transported out of the state. It states: “While decriminalized in Oregon (and some other states), possession of recreational marijuana is still considered a federal crime, as is the transport of marijuana over state lines. For this reason, PDX rules prohibit the possession of marijuana past the security checkpoints for travelers destined for points outside the state of Oregon.”
Its policy on recreational marijuana in the PDX airport further emphasizes that consumption or distribution on the airport property is illegal. It states, “In order to ensure compliance with federal laws, no person shall possess Marijuana in the Secured Area, the Sterile Area and the Air Operations Area. In addition to the restrictions listed above, in order to ensure compliance with federal laws, no passenger traveling out of state and no airport employee may possess Marijuana in the Restricted Area.”
Las Vegas is one of the few major airports with amnesty boxes to drop weed in on the way out of McCarran International Airport (LAS), Southern Nevada‘s major hub. But it does not allow marijuana on the property, and it also does not allow cannabis advertisers in its space. Taxicabs can in fact take cannabis advertisements, so the airport explains it is not liable for “incidental” weed ads that are seen driving through or in its parking lots.
Once on airport property, travelers are at the mercy of the state and Clark County, which owns the airport. Its marijuana clause, Title 20 Ordinance, is rigid. But it explains that penalties for breaking this law are a misdemeanor or civil fines. If it’s under 1 ounce (28.35 grams), the small amount of marijuana allowed for personal use in the state, there is no penalty or fine.
Its policy states: Pursuant to Clark County Code 20.04.090, it is unlawful to possess or advertise Marijuana/Cannabis/THC on Clark County Department of Aviation (DOA) owned property. Penalties include but are not limited to prosecution, arrest, civil and/or criminal fines, or a combination thereof.
If it’s over the legal limit, Nevada is strict (because the state wants to keep its gambling licenses) and law enforcement could treat it as a felony.
Las Vegas has been developing a massive tourist-based adult-use cannabis market since adult-use legalization in 2017, with expansive dispensary storefronts and even hookah-style consumption lounges on their way. Buying weed on the Stripfrom one of the valley’s new dispensaries is an adventure in its own.
Featured image from Shutterstock
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Disclaimer: Today, cannabis still remains classified as a Schedule I drug at the federal level and possessing it carries inherent risks. This is an educational guide and does not provide legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for legal counsel from a licensed attorney.