Packing pot: How risky is it?

Packing pot: How risky is it?
Photo Credit: Jeffy11390/

Update: Pot policies at U.S. airports

Travel Weekly reporter Jeri Clausing in October 2018 took a look at traveling through U.S. airports with cannabis in tow. Her report: "Legal pot policies at U.S. airports vary, as does enforcement," was published Oct. 21, 2018.

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 marijuana laws.

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 enforcement's discretion."

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 directions.

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 recreational-use states.

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 enforcement policies.

"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."


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