Cannabis is legal in California and New York now, but that doesn’t mean you can hop a flight across the country with your stash aboard quite yet. Here’s everything you need to know about the TSA and THC in 2021.
When you visit somewhere awesome, taking home a souvenir is always a solid 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 bringing home a jar of special jam or a Zizmorecore-worthy t-shirt from some delightfully bizarre local attraction is a time-honored part of being a tourist and traveler.
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? Or what about bringing weed on an in-state flight, say from San Diego to San Francisco?
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 favorably 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 in America.
When It Comes to Flying, the Feds Are 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 you’re at the airport, and especially once you’re 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 20, 2019, the federal agency once more confirmed this stance.
“Are we cool? We like to think we’re cool,” the 4/20 post 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 it genuinely doesn’t care about your cannabis, the agency is legally required to report any weed products it finds 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 without being arrested. (That said, you will still likely not be able to bring the stash on board.)
Those traveling from Denver, however, will need to be mindful of what Tasbeeh Herwees described in a Merry Jane article 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 fairly minimal.
Okay, 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 had no idea was still in jeans.
Airports known to have amnesty boxes include McCarran in Las Vegas, O’Hare and Midway in Illinois, and LAX in Los Angeles. In 2020, one THC-friendly traveler apparently dumped 37 pounds of weed in a Colorado Springs amnesty box.
Speaking with the Washington Post, Maggie Huynh with the Chicago Police Department detailed how the O’Hare and Midway amnesty boxes in Illinois 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 the nationwide legalization club, too — that doesn’t mean international borders should be lightly crossed.
Instead, thinking local is probably the smartest move in these situations. For those located in Canada, this means you’re likely fine to travel within the country’s borders while carrying cannabis (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. So your best bet is to ditch the stash before even considering a pass through customs.
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.
There you have it! An updated guide to flying with flower and bringing cannabis in your carry-on. It’s a murky situation, but things are continuing to change as more states embrace marijuana reform. Before we know it, the Mile High Club will refer directly to THC (and not sex) — and every weed-loving traveler will be a member.