As is the case in national parks and on open waters,
possessing cannabis in any form within U.S. airports or on commercial aircraft
falls under federal jurisdiction. As a result, it is illegal, pure and simple.
But the realities of actually traveling with pot or
cannabis-infused substances are not at all simple.
The issue became especially pertinent following Attorney
General Jeff Sessions' recent announcement that he was overturning the Obama
administration's ban on federal prosecutions of licensed growers and sellers in
states where pot had been legalized. Sessions earlier this month told federal
prosecutors they are now free to prosecute growers and sellers under federal
Still, experts said last week, there was no evidence yet that
the ever-expanding legalization of recreational marijuana, already a fact in
nine states, was triggering a spate of drug busts at airports.
As with all things cannabis, the issue of enforcement is a
murky one. While the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is the most
visible law enforcement at airports, its focus is squarely on security threats,
especially acts of terrorism. TSA agents are looking for many things, but
cannabis simply isn't one of them -- or at the very least, it is not a high priority.
Yet, despite concentrating on their security mission, TSA
agents tend to turn over the more egregious cases of possession to airport
security or local law enforcement.
"Airport law enforcement will be notified if marijuana
is discovered by a TSA officer during the security screening process of
carry-on and checked baggage," said TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers. "Whether
or not the passenger is allowed to travel with marijuana is up to law
Of course, the likelihood of TSA discovering cannabis
depends largely on the form factor of the drug being packed by the traveler.
Marijuana in its raw form -- the stereotypical buds or leaves smoked in pipes
or rolled into joints -- is obvious evidence of cannabis possession. But many
users today consume cannabis in more discreet forms, such as with vape pens,
which look the same as e-cigarettes and produce almost no smoke or odor, and
edible products, typically in the form of candies or pastries.
"I don't think [traveling with cannabis] is a very good
idea," warned Emily Gant, a lawyer with the Seattle firm Garvey Schubert
Barer, who counsels clients in the alcohol and cannabis industries. "But
if you send a brownie through an [airport] X-ray machine, they're not going to
necessarily know if it's got cannabis or if it's something your grandma made."
The chances of being stopped, arrested or having one's
possessions confiscated often depend on the amount of pot a traveler possesses,
said Michael Gordon, CEO and co-founder of Kush Tourism, which serves as a
travel guide for cannabis tours, shops, accommodations and activities in states
where recreational marijuana has been legalized.
Citing conversations he has had with both TSA agents and
travelers, Gordon asserted, "If you're carrying enough that it looks like
you're distributing, [TSA] will pass it on to local authorities. If you have
less than an ounce of pot, they won't even bother you. That seems to be the
rule of thumb."
Of course, following that rule of thumb is a serious gamble.
In fact, it flies out the window -- and some very severe penalties can come
into play -- if a pot-possessing passenger is turned over to local authorities
who consider even less than an ounce worthy of prosecution.
The issue continues to gain relevance because of a flurry of
emerging state and federal policies that appear to be moving in opposite
This month, California, the most populous state, became the
largest of nine U.S. states and jurisdictions to legalize recreational
marijuana. Nevada, which includes the country's biggest hotel and tourism
market, Las Vegas, made recreational marijuana legal as of last July. Other
recreational-pot places are Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maine, Oregon,
Washington State and Washington, D.C.
With the California and Nevada law changes, Los Angeles, San
Francisco and Las Vegas airports, which are the country's second-, seventh- and
eighth-busiest, respectively, now operate within marijuana-friendly states.
Prior to the law changes in California and Nevada, Denver and Seattle-Tacoma
were the only airports among the country's 10 busiest that were located in
California's legalization, in particular, brings the airport
laws front and center. While it's fairly well known that transporting cannabis
across state lines is illegal, what is less frequently realized is that flying
with marijuana in-state, say between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is also
illegal because of the federal government's jurisdiction over airports.
Gant allowed that Sessions' recent statement about federal
enforcement of marijuana possession suggests there is a greater risk for a
potential crackdown at U.S. airports than there would have been under the Obama
administration, but she said she had not yet noted any substantive changes in
"We're hearing anecdotal stories of people being
stopped by the TSA and [cannabis] being held, but we're not hearing stories
about people being arrested," Gant said.
As for any concerns that the airport dogs the TSA uses to
sniff out explosives might be used to catch cannabis users, TSA's Dankers said
that was unlikely.
"The canines are trained to detect explosives and are
used for security purposes," she said. "They will continue to have
that singular focus."