More than half of the states in the U.S. have now legalized medical and/or recreational marijuana, but in many cases, the relaxed rules do not protect air travelers.
Sometime in the coming weeks, Massachusetts will license its very first recreational marijuana dispensary. The commonwealth will soon join a handful of other jurisdictions where buying weed is no more difficult than picking up a six-pack of beer at the corner store, but for passengers flying in or out of Boston Logan International Airport (BOS), the rules might not be quite as relaxed.
While The Boston Globe reports that the airport and local regulations don’t specifically prohibit passengers from bringing legal recreational marijuana to the gate, the newspaper cautions that air travelers in the terminals are also subject to federal regulations that take a much harsher view of even small amounts of pot. Although federal agents don’t generally investigate cases in which travelers are in possession of only a personal stash of weed, there remains the possibility of running afoul of the law even in a state where recreational marijuana is legal.
The federal government has broad enforcement powers when it comes to regulating interstate commerce. Even pot-carrying passengers who don’t run into problems at the airport are taking a risk by transporting across state lines what is still considered a controlled substance under federal law. Passengers taking a flight that doesn’t leave the state, however, are on slightly safer ground, legally speaking.
Oregon was among the first U.S. states to legalize small amounts of recreational marijuana. Soon after pot became legal, officials confirmed that flyers at Portland International Airport (PDX) who were found to have small amounts of the recently legalized drug by TSA screeners would be referred to Airport Police officers, who would determine if the passengers are of legal age, ticketed on a flight within the state and in compliance with the new recreational marijuana law. Passengers who were not in violation of state law would be allowed to continue to their flights.
Signs posted at airport security checkpoints soon after marijuana became legal under state law, reminded passengers of the odd quirk of jurisdiction. The notices read: “Please be advised recreational marijuana is not permitted on flights traveling outside of Oregon.”
After recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado, officials at Denver International Airport (DEN) took a decidedly different approach to passengers caught traveling with small amounts of weed. Rather than citing flyers or letting them board flights with the federally prohibited substance, police simply allowed passengers to return the potential contraband to their vehicles.
Meanwhile in Nevada, Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS) may be one of the few places in the state where marijuana possession is still against the law. Local ordinance prohibits recreational marijuana at the airport. The facility recently installed drop boxes to help passengers comply with the airport-specific weed restrictions.
The fact that Washington, D.C. has allowed small amounts of personal-use marijuana since 2014 didn’t help Fifth Harmony singer Lauren Jauregui who was busted for pot possession at Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) in 2016. Of course, frequent flyers know that IAD is located in Fairfax County, Virginia, not in D.C.
According to the TSA, screeners are required to report any contraband, but the decision to pursue charges is left entirely up to local law enforcement.
“TSA’s screening procedures are focused on security and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers,” the agency noted in its passenger guidelines. “Accordingly, TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs, but in the event a substance that appears to be marijuana or a cannabis infused product is observed during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.”
In this case, even airports in states where recreational weed remains illegal may be de facto safe harbors. While recreational pot is still against the law in most cases within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Police Department has a publicly announced policy of ignoring small amounts of personal marijuana, making a passenger’s chance of arrest at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) where the drug is still technically contraband less than at LAS which is in a state with far more liberal drug laws. On the other hand, showing up at any airport with a technically illegal substance could be a potentially inconvenient and possibly risky decision.
For frequent flyers, the risks of getting caught at the airport with weed could mean more than just the legal hassle. The TSA admitted in May that it maintains a list of troublesome passengers, but the agency was somewhat circumspect about what will get a passenger placed on the secret list. When a screener alerts local law enforcement to a small amount of weed (legally obtained or not), it is a safe bet there will be a paper trail and a name entered in a database somewhere. This could potentially be bad news for a flyer with TSA PreCheck or Global Entry privileges – which are notoriously easy to have revoked after even minor infractions at the airport.