America’s patchwork system of cannabis legalization laws has sown confusion at countless levels of society, and that includes air travel.
Federal law prohibits anyone from possessing marijuana on airplanes, and TSA is required to enforce that policy. Yet various states where cannabis is legal have implemented policies that make it easier for passengers to fly with marijuana. Although these pseudo-solutions are helpful for consumers, they also muddy the line between legality and illegality even further.
Remember: Just because police don’t necessarily enforce their own policies around passengers flying with weed does not guarantee that you won’t get in trouble.
Read on to learn what’s actually legal, what’s almost legal, and what’s a real no-no when it comes to flying with cannabis.
TSA hands off enforcement to local police, and complications ensue
Let’s get the most obvious part out of the way first: Since federal law is in effect on airplanes, and marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, it is thus illegal to fly with marijuana in your possession. Yes, that goes for medical marijuana patients, too.
TSA officials have made it clear, however, that sniffing out your eighth of weed or your package of edibles isn’t their top priority: Their concern is flight safety, not the enforcement of our nation’s drug laws.
“Let us be blunt: TSA officers DO NOT search for marijuana or other illegal drugs,” the agency quipped on its Instagram page in 2019.
But there’s a catch. Since TSA cannot make arrests themselves, if a TSA agent stumbles upon marijuana in your bags, federal policy technically requires them to notify local law enforcement. In a prohibition state like Texas or Idaho, you may be in real trouble. But if you are in a legal state like Colorado, TSA agents may turn a blind eye to your bud (if you’re within that state’s legal possession limits).
And that’s where things get tricky: In many cases, law enforcement’s decision to bust you or not—and to let you keep your weed or not—is downright arbitrary.
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Oregon sets a high bar for leniency, with other states and airports close behind
Since 2015, Oregon has led the charge in relaxing their cannabis laws on airplanes. If you’re flying from Portland to another airport within the state of Oregon, you’ve got a green light to bring your green onboard the aircraft.
According to CNN, if TSA stops you with marijuana in your bag in Portland, they will notify local police who, in turn, will let you board your flight.
If you’re leaving Oregon for another state, TSA can take your weed, but not bust you.
Here are how other legal states are loosening their laws—and sometimes turning a blind eye—to cannabis:
- In neighboring Washington state, officials won’t take your marijuana away if you’re arriving in the state, but can confiscate it if you’re taking a flight leaving the state—even if you’re headed to another state where weed is legal.
- Seattle-Tacoma Airport allows adult passengers to carry marijuana in amounts at or under the state’s legal limit. An airport representative confirmed to Leafly that state possession laws apply both before and after passengers pass through security checkpoints.
- In July 2021, New York airport police announced they would no longer seize marijuana from passengers either, unless it exceeds the state possession limit of three ounces.
- At LAX, Los Angeles police won’t arrest passengers with less than an ounce on them, but they will throw your weed away. Reached for comment, Lieutenant Karla Rodriguez of the Airport Police Division told Leafly that if passengers arrive at the airport with more than an ounce of cannabis—the maximum allowed by California law—they “may be arrested if there is reason to believe it is being transported for sales.”
Chicago and Las Vegas airports install amnesty boxes
O’Hare and Midway airports in Chicago, as well as McCarran International in Las Vegas, have placed “amnesty boxes” near their entrances or at the end of security checkpoints. Passengers can discard cannabis in them without fear of legal retribution.
Yet the boxes have drawn criticism for being expensive, rarely used, and easy to break into.
In Las Vegas, the boxes cost almost $1,500 apiece to set up and install, plus $75 per week, per box, to service. Every year, the airport drops about $114,000 to keep 20 boxes available…and unused.
Medical marijuana is also subject to arbitrary gray areas
Medical marijuana is technically subject to the same rules as recreational cannabis: It’s illegal to bring it on a flight. Yet even the TSA itself recognizes the rule is enforced arbitrarily.
In 2019, TSA regional spokesperson Mark Howell told the New York Times that if you’re a medical patient that gets stopped with marijuana in your possession, you should “present your medical marijuana card, and the law enforcement officials will usually just give it back to you.” That’s right, “usually.” Comforting, huh?
CBD is kosher to bring on a plane
Here’s one point that’s pretty clear: Thanks to the 2018 US Farm Bill, it is legal to bring CBD products on a plane, as long as they contain less than 0.3% THC. And just like with shampoo, moisturizer and other liquids, you can’t bring more than 3 ounces with you.
Note: You’re in the clear to bring a CBD vape pen in your carry-on luggage, but you can’t check it.
Don’t mess with border patrol
All of the information above refers exclusively to domestic travel. Flying internationally with cannabis is a completely different beast: Don’t risk it.
Crossing an international border with any type of cannabis product is highly illegal. Don’t do it.
Even if you’re flying to Canada, where cannabis is legal, you are under the jurisdiction of Border Control agents. Unlike TSA, they can arrest you for marijuana possession. And don’t forget: Many countries have stricter marijuana laws than the United States. If you’re busted with marijuana in another country, you may face jail time there.
This article is updated from an earlier version written by Ben Adlin.