DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: The mile high club may soon take on a new meaning as states continue to liberalize their marijuana laws.
Although it’s a try-it-at-your-own-risk scenario, airplane passengers in certain situations are being permitted to carry marijuana on board, even if TSA agents sniff out the drugs.
It’s never technically altogether legal to fly on commercial airlines with weed because the airports all fall under federal jurisdiction, and marijuana is still illegal under federal law. However, TSA policy and anecdotal reports suggest that passengers who travel between states in which they can legally use pot are likely to be allowed to fly.
The reason is that although TSA reserves the right to ruin your day if they so choose, their official policy on drugs is to refer them to local law enforcement. So if the passenger has authorization to use medical marijuana, or if he or she is flying between Washington and Colorado, where possession of the drug even for recreational purposes has been legalized, local law enforcement isn’t going to intervene.
According to a statement on the TSA web site:
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 “medical marijuana” under local law is not relevant to TSA screening because TSA is governed by federal law and 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.
While TSA may never come right out and say that it will allow people to carry a federally banned substance, advocates in the field say that’s generally what’s been happening in practice.
“I hear reports from people flying from one medical use site to another or flying from one part of California to another and they generally report that if they carry their authorization, they simply show the letter and are sent on their way and are allowed to keep their medicine,” says Keith Stroup, an attorney and founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “The same policy should apply Colorado to Washington or Washington to Colorado.”
“I’m delighted to hear that because I think it shows that TSA primarily is acting as it was intended when it was established, to protect all of us when we travel on the airlines and to thwart terrorists. It is not supposed to be an anti-drug agency,” says Stroup. “What nobody feels 100 percent comfortable with is it’s a grey zone you’re going through. It’s technically still illegal even though they aren’t enforcing it very strongly.”
It’s also worth pointing out that not all states reciprocate medical use authorizations, so even if passengers are allowed to fly with marijuana from one medical state to another they could be violating state law when they land with it.
And to reiterate, even a medical patient carrying authorization or someone flying between Washington and Colorado is still taking a risk if they choose to carry weed on the plane.
“It is a federal agency, marijuana does remain illegal under federal law, so if you get the wrong TSA agent and he wants to be a pain, he can arrest you,” Stroup says. “I’m glad to see there’s a little give in the system but obviously at some point we need to remove marijuana from federal law so this is not an issue.”