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What you need to know about traveling with marijuana

August 19 2022
11 min read
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Editor's note: This post has been updated with new information.

With New York's legalization of marijuana in 2021, the number of U.S. states where pot has been legalized for recreational purposes has reached 19, and a total of 38 states (plus Washington, D.C., and multiple territories) allow marijuana possession for medical purposes, including, say, to manage the stress of flying.

However, federal law still classifies marijuana as an illegal controlled substance. The federal penalty for possession of any amount of marijuana can be up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. WNBA star Brittney Griner's recent nine-year imprisonment sentence in Russia highlights the huge risk of traveling internationally with even small amounts of cannabis product.

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So what is a traveler who is considering crossing state or country borders in possession of marijuana to do?

Is it OK to carry your THC-infused gummies when flying domestically between two states where marijuana is legal, say from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)?

How about when driving across the border from Canada (where pot is legal) to the state of Washington (also legal)? Or returning from Amsterdam to Washington, D.C, both places where pot has been legalized?

Conflicting and vague advice, including from federal and state officials, has left many travelers up in smoke, worried about potential prosecution.

TPG looked at the latest laws and spoke with multiple airport officials to light up some insights into laws, rules and recommendations for travelers.

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Traveling with weed

(Photo by Jamie Grill/Getty Images)

In January 2014, Colorado became the first U.S. state to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Since then, 18 other states have followed suit. In total, marijuana is legal for medical or recreational use in 38 states across the country, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Cannabis is becoming normalized, and the steady decriminalization and legalization are opening doors for a flourishing pot-tourism market. Gone are the days of travelers exclusively flocking to Amsterdam for its famous coffee shops. Now, luxury wine and weed tours run in California, Washington and Oregon, and travelers can head to Canada to peruse that nation’s flourishing marijuana dispensaries.

Despite this trend toward legalization on a state and country basis, marijuana is still illegal at the U.S. federal level.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency governs border crossings on land and at airports. Its official statement on traveling with marijuana is as follows: "As some states have decriminalized the use and possession of marijuana, it is important that members of the traveling public clearly understand that federal law still prohibits the importation of any amount of this drug.” Hector Mancha, CBP's director of field operations in El Paso, Texas, clarified by saying, “Do not cross the border with any amount of marijuana at all.”

CBP is specifically tasked with interdicting the drug trade and, with that mission, can and will aggressively search for any and all controlled substances, including using drug-sniffing dogs.

However, when traveling domestically, the inspection process is different.

Travelers with marijuana have less to worry about when passing through a TSA checkpoint, particularly in states where marijuana is legal. This is because, by law, TSA's screening procedures are "focused on security and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers," according to the TSA website. Therefore, "TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs, but if any illegal substance is discovered during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.”

It's the transfer from TSA to law enforcement where some loopholes in the federal rules might be found. Local law enforcement may have no interest or jurisdiction to do anything about small amounts of pot found in your bags.

"Passengers flying within California are allowed to have less than 28.5 grams (about one ounce) in their possession for personal use," Robert Rueca, public information officer for the San Francisco Police Department told TPG. "SFPD does enforce state law only. If the traveler is leaving California they will be allowed to board the plane but advised that they will potentially fall under different laws depending on where they land." Officer Rueca confirms SFPD is NOT citing, arresting, detaining or confiscating product from any passengers in possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.

The Los Angeles Airport Police, "who are California Peace Officers, have no jurisdiction to arrest individuals if they are complying with state law," according to Heath Montgomery, director of public relations for the airport.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which has responsibility for airport law enforcement there, said it will not take action against passengers with small amounts of marijuana. “New Yorkers 21 years old and older can possess, obtain and transport up to three ounces of cannabis,” The Gothamist reported a Port Authority spokesperson as saying. “Therefore, PAPD does not issue tickets, seize or arrest for this amount at NY airports.”

Given the lack of action by local law enforcement at airports in pot-friendly states, it is unlikely the TSA will bother contacting the police if it finds a small amount of weed in your bag. Still, it is possible it will do so, and also possible that law enforcement may try to hold you for a federal violation. So domestic airport travel with marijuana should be considered a low-risk, but not risk-free, action.

States and territories with legalized recreational marijuana

To help you judge the risks of traveling with marijuana, here is a list of states which have passed legislation allowing the possession of limited amounts of marijuana and marijuana-based products for personal recreational use. The specifics of the law differ by state and occasionally change, so be sure to check with local governments or a resource like NORML's legal tips page to find out the latest.

AlaskaArizonaCalifornia
ColoradoConnecticutDistrict of Columbia
GuamIllinoisMaine
MassachusettsMichiganMontana
NevadaNew JerseyNew Mexico
New YorkOregonRhode Island
VermontVirginiaWashington

(Source: NORML)

States and territories with legalized medical marijuana

(Screenshot from NORML)

As evident on the map above, most U.S. states have passed laws allowing the personal use of marijuana and related products for medical purposes, with approved certification from a medical professional. Specifics of the law may vary widely from state to state, so be sure to check with local regulations or at NORML's law information page.

When in doubt, follow federal law

During a media conference last spring, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent explained that a U.S. citizen returning home from Canada will be allowed back into the country after consuming marijuana, though he or she “may face a couple extra questions.”

“If it’s obvious that someone in the car has smoked or we smell it, you may be subject to search at that point, but barring [possession, they] would be allowed to continue,” the agent said.

That’s because once you enter a security checkpoint, federal law enforcement takes over.

Christopher Perry, CBP’s director of field operations at the time, explained during a press conference in Detroit last spring that “crossing the border or arriving at U.S. port of entry in violation … may result in denied admission, seizure, fines and apprehension.”

Basically, crossing a border with a souvenir blunt could land you in serious trouble.

The guidelines that apply to travelers returning from a visit to Canada are the same regulations that cover travelers moving across state lines — even if you’re flying from one state where marijuana is legal to another state with similar laws. In other words, you’re going to have to deal with the feds.

According to the TSA, its main focus is to stop items that could potentially put a flight in jeopardy, such as explosive devices and weapons, from making it onto the plane. However, it is also required to involve local law enforcement if it detects a federally illegal activity or possession.

“We are a federal agency,” Michael McCarthy, former TSA spokesperson and current spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told TPG. “In the eyes of the government, it is illegal to possess marijuana. Our officers don’t have the option to turn a blind eye.”

McCarthy explained that, regardless of the passenger’s destination, origin, how much of the substance they have and even whether or not they have a medical marijuana card, the TSA is still required to notify the police of anything discovered during a screening. From there, it’s up to the local police department to determine the next steps.

Repercussions

Travelers caught with marijuana should know that the repercussions can vary widely depending on that specific state’s policies on possession. In Oregon, for instance, law enforcement will often — but not always — let passengers carrying marijuana fly to another destination within the state without having to dispose of the substance. In some cases, the officer may allow you to pass through security with a little bit of weed in your pocket. But in other states (the white ones on the map above), you may find yourself with your hands cuffed behind your back.

Many airports in weed-friendly states will allow passengers to return the cannabis to whoever dropped them off, take it back to their car or leave it in an amnesty box. Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (ASE) had a famously overstuffed weed amnesty box for years.

According to Rob Pedregon, a public information officer at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) — one of the busiest airports in one of the largest weed-friendly cities — the focus is on educating the public, rather than writing citations and putting people in handcuffs.

“Travelers need to know what’s legal and not legal, especially as far as quantity and transportation,” Pedregon said. “Our [focus] is really on education. We’ll explain [the laws] to them and assist them out of screening so that they can return [the cannabis] to wherever they need to, and try to accommodate them the best we can.”

Pedregon added that possessing a quantity larger than what’s legal (1 ounce in California) and trying to transport it is what’s going to really get travelers in trouble.

Marijuana paraphernalia

(Photo by Hazem Kamal/Getty Images)

While substances with tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC)— leaf marijuana, edibles, oils, hash — are illegal under federal law and not permitted during air travel, not all marijuana-derived substances are as straightforward. Some, like hemp products — including cannabidiol (or CBD) oil — have extremely low or nonexistent THC levels, meaning users won’t feel a high from the substance.

Here, things get murky. CBD oil derived from hemp is now legal (hemp was legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill). As a result, officials are less likely to care about a CBD gummy than a nugget of pure pot — but travelers should still be cautious traveling with these goods and tinctures. That’s because CBD extracted from a cannabis plant may still be illegal.

Marijuana paraphernalia, such as a bowl or pipe, can be brought through security as well. At LAX, specifically, even if something contains resin, officials say there is no issue — assuming there's not enough substance to use. However, TSA officials are not trained specifically to differentiate between various types of cannabis products. So if they see something suspicious (such as a bong) that may be associated with federally illegal substances, it will likely be reported to local law enforcement.

If you're traveling with a vape pen (no matter what its intended use), it cannot be placed in your checked bags due to its lithium battery and must be carried on the plane. If the cartridges you're carrying for the vape pen contain THC, they are technically illegal on the federal level (this is what Brittney Griner was arrested for in Russia). But it is highly unlikely the TSA will care about your cartridges unless you have dozens packed in your bag.

Bottom line

When considering traveling with cannabis or cannabis-related products, it’s important to fully understand state laws as well as federal and international laws, and to understand the consequences associated with possession.

In the U.S., the TSA and local law enforcement at the airport for domestic travel— especially in weed-friendly states — will be far more focused on potential security risks than low-level drug enforcement.

Still, federal law applies at all border crossings and airports.

While in most states it is unlikely you'll be cited, detained or prosecuted for carrying a pot brownie or baggie of gummies onto your flight, the simplest and safest option is to not travel with any marijuana and just pick up a new supply upon arrival at your destination.

with additional reporting by Jordan Allen

Featured photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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