Marijuana is legal now in eight states and medical marijuana is legal in 28. That's a lot of places where at least some people can possess the demon weed. But what if you're in one of those places and you want to fly elsewhere? If pot is legal, can I take it on the plane?
Well, that depends.
The first thing to remember is that even in states where marijuana is legal, it's still illegal under federal law. At the airport, or even in your backyard in California, a federal agent could theoretically arrest you for violating the Controlled Substances Act just for possessing a small amount of weed. There is that. Given the DEA's manpower limitations, though, that is an extremely unlikely prospect. Still, it's a reality worth keeping in the back of your mind.
The second thing to remember is that, even though it's part of a federal agency, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) doesn't really care about marijuana. Those nice people who pat you down and check your bags at the airport are concerned with items that could compromise the safety of the airplane and its passengers; they're looking for bombs, not buds.
Here's the official TSA policy:
TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other drugs. In the event a substance that appears to be marijuana is observed during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer. Whether or not marijuana is considered legal under local law is not relevant to TSA screening because TSA is governed by federal law. Federal law provides no basis to treat medical marijuana any differently than non-medical marijuana. Even if an item is generally permitted, it may be subject to additional screening or not allowed through the checkpoint if it triggers an alarm during the screening process, appears to have been tampered with, or poses other security concerns. The final decision rests with TSA on whether to allow any items on the plane.
Or, as Boston TSA spokesman Mike McCarthy explained to a curious Boston Globe reporter after Massachusetts legalized it last November: "Our agents do administrative searches, not criminal searches. Our officers are looking for any item that could cause catastrophic harm to the aircraft, but, as part of their duties, if they detect anything that they believe to be illegal, they will refer the passenger and the baggage over to local law enforcement, and it is up to local law enforcement how to respond.”
The key point here is that if TSA finds pot on your person or in your bags, it is going to "refer the matter" to a local law enforcement agency — not a federal one. And if your locale is one where marijuana or medical marijuana is legal, local law enforcement is not going to arrest you or seize your stash, as long as it's within your locale's legal limits. Instead, once they see that you are in compliance with state law, they will send you and your weed on your merry way.
That legal amount varies under the different state laws, although it's typically an ounce. Medical marijuana patients can get away with larger amounts if recommended in compliance with state laws. For instance, patients flying out of San Francisco can carry up to eight ounces, while non-patients can carry only the recreationally legal ounce.
Some state laws forbid taking legal marijuana out of state, but that does not appear to be a concern of local police. Los Angeles Airport Police spokesman Rob Pedregon told the Globe that if the TSA finds marijuana on an outbound passenger and he's 21 or over and carrying less than an ounce, he is not violating California law and is free to go. He may be violating the law once he lands in Omaha or Orlando, but that's for Nebraska or Florida to worry about, not the LA airport cops. We are aware of no instances of police in legal states notifying police in non-legal states that a passenger carrying a bag of weed is headed their way.
But remember, if you fly into a prohibitionist state with your weed, you're subject to the laws of that state.
There are variations in what airports allow in the pot-friendly states. If you're flying out of PDX in Portland, for example, you can only take weed with you if you're flying to an in-state destination. And the Denver airport has enacted a policy barring possession of marijuana on airport property, which means if they find weed in your baggage, they will make you dispose of it.
If you plan on flying with pot, check with the airport you plan to use for their policies and procedures.
When it comes to flying with pot, discretion is the better part of valor. If you do things right, chances are the TSA will not even notice your buds, and that's even more the case when it comes to non-traditional forms of marijuana, such as edibles and vape pens.
As the medical marijuana support group United Patients noted: "Several patients have noted the importance of carrying only what is needed for your personal consumption, to be inconspicuous in the manner in which you transport your medicine, and never putting marijuana, edibles or other related items in checked luggage but always taking it as carry-on. Many patients have shared that when following these guidelines, even without alerting authorities prior to arrival, they have passed through security without a problem, but always carry their documents just in case."
A recent High Times piece also extolled the virtues of putting your pot in your carry-on bag: "You must pack your stash in your carry-on. Repeat: Do not put in your checked luggage!"
The author argues that the likelihood of the carry-on being searched is low, especially if you are careful packing it and don't include all-too-common items that set off TSA red flags, such as phone chargers and toiletries. But more importantly, with your carry-on right beside you, you can argue to protect your weed in the face of official interference, whereas if you leave your stash in your checked bag and it is seized, you likely won't even know it until you arrive at your destination, open your suitcase, and find your goodies gone and a note from TSA.
If you want to fly with weed, understand the potential risks, find out the policies in place at the airport you plan to use, prepare yourself and your package your pot properly before you go through TSA inspection, and you should be good to go. In most of these legal state airports, the worst that's going to happen is that you might get held up waiting for the airport cops to say it's all good and miss your flight. There's always another one.
Still don't think it can be done? Check out this guy, and he wasn't exactly discreet: