Legal pot policies at U.S. airports vary, as does enforcement

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Legal pot policies at U.S. airports vary, as does enforcement
Photo Credit: Eric Moya

The discovery of Los Angeles Airport's policy allowing passengers to travel with legal marijuana made national headlines recently, but it turns out LAX is not the only airport to adopt such a policy.

Seattle-Tacoma Airport also allows adult passengers to carry marijuana in amounts at or under the state's legal limit, according to spokesman Perry Cooper. And in Oregon, Portland Airport spokeswoman Kama Simonds said the policy is to let passengers who are traveling within the state carry their marijuana.

On the other hand, policies about traveling with pot in the other six states that have legalized recreational use vary depending on state and local laws and regulations. Officials advise passengers that they need to know the rules and risks on both ends of their flight.

While domestically there has been generally little risk of arrest of passengers caught violating bans on carrying cannabis products through airports, travelers at airports other than Seattle and LAX should be prepared to trash their stash in the event, however unlikely, that it is flagged by the TSA.

And then there's our northern neighbor.

Traveling to and from Canada, which legalized marijuana nationwide just last week, is a different and much riskier animal. Canadian authorities say it remains illegal to carry marijuana across international borders, even if you are traveling to one of the 31 U.S. states where it is legal for medical and/or recreational use.

The TSA, which has no arresting authority, turns over any incidents of marijuana found in baggage to local airport law enforcement. That is not true of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which oversees law enforcement at the borders and over international arrivals. It has full arresting and enforcement authority over cross-border marijuana violations, which fall squarely under federal jurisdiction.

Under federal law, marijuana is still a controlled substance, like cocaine and heroin. Simple possession with no intent to distribute is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a minimum fine of $1,000.

Asked if CBP had plans to beef up enforcement or increase the use of drug-sniffing dogs for flights coming in from Canada, agency spokeswoman Stephanie Malin asserted, "Nothing will change at the U.S. border, at airports or at preclearance locations" as a result of Canadian legalization.

Still, Mason Tvert, vice president of communications for VS Strategies, which is affiliated with the Denver cannabis law firm of Vicente Sederberg, said, "I would never recommend crossing an international border with a product that is illegal in one of the countries."

As for domestic travel, both Denver Airport and Las Vegas McCarran have made it illegal to carry marijuana on airport property, despite state laws making adult use legal. McCarran also has installed "amnesty boxes" in which passengers can dump pot products before coming through security.

Kelly Colling, deputy director of aviation operations at Vermont's Burlington Airport, said that passengers found with legal amounts of pot are asked to leave it in their car or give it to an adult to take off the premises.

"If the passenger doesn't want to comply, then the airline is notified," she said. "As far as I know, we haven't run into any cases where a passenger has refused, but we don't track it."

Airport officials in Boston and Anchorage did not respond to inquiries about their marijuana policies, and both Washington-area airports are in Virginia, where recreational marijuana use remains illegal.

In Seattle and LAX, airport officials said, the policy is simply to warn passengers that marijuana might be illegal in their destination state, then let them pass.

The only nationwide constant in the process is TSA policy, which requires officers to contact airport law enforcement if they find marijuana in a passenger's baggage.

Agency spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said, "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. This also covers medical marijuana."

Dankers, however, also emphasized that the TSA's "focus is on terrorism and security threats to the aircraft and its passengers. As has always been the case, if during the security screening process a TSA officer discovers an item that may violate the law, the TSA refers the matter to law enforcement. Law enforcement officials will determine whether to initiate a criminal investigation or what steps, if any, will be taken."

The Denver Police Department, which has law enforcement authority at the airport, has made 34 marijuana-related arrests since Colorado in 2014 became the first state to legalize adult recreational use. The public information office did not provide any details about those arrests beyond the number, but it noted that "travelers bring marijuana and marijuana edibles to the airport daily that are confiscated and submitted to be destroyed, where there are no arrests."

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