Marijuana is federally illegal in the United States even though medicinal use is legal in 33 states plus D.C., and recreational use is permitted in 10 states plus D.C. The difference between state and federal law in America makes things unclear at the best of times, and as far as marijuana is concerned, confusion reigns supreme.
The issue of bringing cannabis on an airplane is a perfect case in point. As it is a federally illegal substance like heroin, one would assume that bringing it on board an airplane is a no-no. Conversely, you may think it is okay as long as you are flying from one ‘legal’ weed state to another. In fact, neither supposition is accurate as shades of gray continue to cause havoc.
Marijuana & Airplanes – The Law in General
Airports are owned by cities, but since the feds are authorized to operate them, federal law supersedes state law. In other words, even if you buy your marijuana legally, it becomes an illegal substance from the moment you show a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent your boarding pass.
Yet even then, the issue is far from cut and dried. The TSA is tasked with keeping planes and passengers secure. They are far more concerned about finding explosive devices than an ounce of Blue Dream, and will probably pull you over faster for having a large bottle of water than they would for a few grams of cannabis.
The TSA’s screening procedures mean detecting potential threats. As a result, they are not actively looking for drugs so you could technically sneak through without a problem. However, the likely outcome is that a TSA agent will find the hash and hand you over to airport security.
When this happens, there are several possible outcomes. In airports such as Aspen-Pitkin County in Colorado or McCarran in Las Vegas, Nevada, you will probably be told to dump your weed in the bin or place it in a special ‘amnesty’ box. This is primarily because recreational use is legal in these states. If you’re really lucky, a police officer might wave you through with the marijuana if you have a valid MMJ card.
On the other hand, you could be very unlucky and meet a police officer who is surlier than a Brian Dennehy character. Local law enforcement may not press charges (in states where cannabis use is legal), but the feds could get involved, and that’s a real problem.
According to California law, for example, it is a felony to transport for-sale weed outside the state. In other words, if you are caught with a large amount, you could be spending several years in prison. The majority of cases that end up in court are tried on a state level. This is better news for the defendant because it increases the chances of a favorable outcome.
What About in Legal States?
Don’t assume that taking weed from one recreationally legal state to another (Colorado to California for example) is permissible. If a TSA agent finds cannabis or another illegal substance during security screening, the default policy is to contact law enforcement. Your destination and location of origin are not taken into account. The response of the TSA to cannabis at the airport is consistent across the United States.
Will you be arrested in an airport in a recreational state? The answer is: “It depends.” In certain airports, such as John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, for example, airport police won’t charge you with a crime as long as you are in possession of a state legal amount. You won’t be allowed to bring it on board (you’ll need to throw it away), but it beats getting arrested.
The likely response depends on the airport, rather than the state. At Denver International Airport, for example, weed is banned anywhere on airport property. It is a VERY different story at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
Need to Bring Marijuana on Board? Head to LAX
Cannabis has been legal for recreational use in California since January 1, 2018. On the same day, LAX updated its marijuana policy. According to the airport’s official website, Los Angeles Airport Police Division (APD) officers have no jurisdiction to arrest anyone in possession of marijuana, as long as you carry it in accordance with state law.
At the time of writing, passengers at LAX are allowed travel through security with up to 8 grams of concentrated marijuana and 28.5 grams of weed. The policy also applies to several other airports under APD jurisdiction. Bizarrely, it only became a major story about eight months later! Up to that point, tens of thousands of people left their weed at home when using LAX in the mistaken belief that they couldn’t bring it with them!
Just to be clear, it doesn’t mean you can waltz through security at LAX waving a bag of Girl Scout Cookies in a TSA agent’s face. That agent can and will stop you, and contact the police as per the usual protocols. The difference is that the APD will arrive and wave you through.
It is also a fact that you can be arrested for weed possession when you land! Alicia Hernandez, a public information officer for the APD, spoke to Rolling Stone magazine in September 2018. She said that the APD “doesn’t concern itself with other state laws or whether travelers will be violating them upon their arrival.”
A Risky Business
For the most part, law enforcement is not concerned about passengers carrying small amounts of weed. Even so, it is very much a case of ‘carry at your own risk.’ If you need weed for medical purposes, make sure you have your MMJ card and don’t attract unwanted attention. Make sure there are no liquids in your bag, and there’s a chance that your hash brownies will go unnoticed.
It is a terrible idea to try and bring oils or tinctures on board. The mere fact that they are liquid immediately draws attention. Edibles are much harder to detect, especially if you make them yourself and package them like normal food items. Edibles also have less of a smell. In contrast, trying to bring flower will probably end in tears.
If you are caught, don’t object, complain, or get angry with the TSA agent. There is no point trying to talk your way out of the situation, but make sure you display your MMJ card if you have it. There is no real defense for interstate transportation so keep your mouth closed, and ask for an attorney if you get arrested.
Is It Legal to Take Weed on a Plane? Final Thoughts
If you are flying from one state to another in America, the issue of whether or not you can bring weed on board is a murky one. LAX is one of the few airports where you can bring a specific quantity and even then, you will be stopped by TSA agents. Although the TSA doesn’t expressly look for drugs, if they find weed on your person, they will contact airport security.
At that stage, it is pot luck in a lot of airports, and could even depend on the mood of the arresting officer on that day. If it is a small amount in a state where recreational use is legal, you will probably be set free but need to bin your weed. However, there is a possibility that you will be arrested and charged with intent to transport marijuana to a different state.
Even if you get through airport security, it is entirely possible that bringing weed into the state you are traveling to is illegal. This is the case even when flying out from LAX. The originating and destination airports are NOT taken into account by the TSA. No matter what, smoking weed is illegal on airport property! Here is a final overview to hopefully help answer the title question:
- Only a handful of airports, like LAX, allow you to bring marijuana through security.
- TSA agents will stop you and contact law enforcement. It is up to airport security to decide what to do next.
- As U.S. aircraft operate under federal laws, transporting marijuana by air is technically illegal.
- You are not allowed to put marijuana in a checked bag.
- Federal law prohibits sending weed through the mail so don’t do it, even if you can’t bring your marijuana with you on the plane!
- If you have an MMJ card, make sure you bring it in case you get stopped.