The July 4 weekend will kick off the first summer travel season since California voted to join seven other states in legalizing marijuana for all adults. What’s more, there are now 30 states where medical marijuana is allowed, with a couple more close to coming on board.
So, as vacationers prepare to hit the road, many have a simple question: How can we legally mix travel and weed?
“We have been getting lots of calls about this issue recently,” said Nico Melendez, spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration.
In California, the rules on traveling with cannabis are evolving. And conflicts between state and federal marijuana laws – and how rules are enforced among the various states or even one airport vs. another – are causing confusion.
For recreational consumers of cannabis, the simple answer is to leave weed at home and, if desired, to unwind with a cocktail. But for medical patients who aren’t able to take along specific strains or cannabis products they use daily to combat symptoms of an illness or chronic pain, summer travel could be anything but simple.
Here’s a closer look at what the law says, how the rules are actually playing out and what experts recommend to stay safe and legal.
It’s never legal to fly with cannabis, even if you’re traveling within a legal-weed state like California or between states that both permit marijuana. Air travel falls under federal jurisdiction, and under federal law it remains illegal to possess or transport any amount of cannabis.
That said, TSA searchers aren’t looking for marijuana.
“We’re looking for items that will bring down an airplane,” Melendez said, referring to explosives or weapons.
Of course, TSA officers still stumble upon marijuana during routine searches of passengers and bags. Hence the bevy of products (everything from hollow hair brushes and jars of peanut butter) and online cheat sheets aimed at helping people hide cannabis.
When TSA officers do find a stash, Melendez said they hand the incident – and the weed – over to local law enforcement.
Depending how much marijuana the passenger was carrying and what airport they were carrying it in, they may face a verbal warning, a fine or being led off in handcuffs.
At California’s busiest flight hub, Los Angeles International Airport, police spokesman Rob Pedregon said they simply enforce state marijuana laws. So if TSA calls them about a weed-toting passenger, so long as the traveler is 21 or older, or they have a medical marijuana card, and the amount is an ounce or less, they’re sent on their way with a reminder that it’s illegal to bring cannabis on a plane.
Same goes for John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana. In the seven months since Californians legalized marijuana, Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Marc Gonzales, who oversees airport security, said his officers haven’t received a single call from TSA for anyone carrying cannabis.
“I think people that are carrying recreational marijuana are paying attention to the legality of it,” Gonzales said.
The only incident they’ve had was a couple months ago when a flyer presumably chickened out about trying to carry cannabis-infused edibles through the TSA checkpoint and ditched the box in an airport trash can. Someone else grabbed the box, Gonzales said, then called for help when they felt ill from eating too much weed.
Over at Denver International Airport, in the state that’s been ground zero for the legal weed movement, visitors can’t have any marijuana on airport property. But if passengers are caught with small amounts they’re simply asked to toss the weed in an “amnesty box” before boarding or face a ticket of up to $999.
In four years, Denver airport spokesman Heath Montgomery said they haven’t issued a single fine.
“We have found that passengers either understand the rules in advance or comply with them when they are explained,” he said.
Though Florida residents voted in November to legalize medical marijuana, Orlando International Airport officials just opted to join Denver in banning all cannabis on their property.
Of course, anyone who tries to fly with large amounts of marijuana risks getting hit with federal drug trafficking charges. And international flights are a whole different ballgame, since customs officials in other countries may enforce much harsher policies.
Also good to remember: Ian Gregor, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, notes that it’s illegal for airlines to carry passengers who appear under the influence of drugs.
While Southwest Airlines has policies for identifying customers who appear intoxicated, spokesman Cindy Hermosillo said they don’t have specific procedures related to drugs.
“However,” she added, “our flight attendants are trained to use common sense and good judgment with any situation that poses a risk to the safety and security of the aircraft, crew or customers.”
That means even travelers who burn through their stash before they get to the airport might be grounded if they appear stoned at the gate.
RULES FOR ROAD TRIPS
If the freedom of the open road is calling your name, keep in mind that the rules for carrying cannabis along aren’t yet settled.
In California, all adults 21 and over can travel with up to an ounce of cannabis flowers or up to 8 grams of concentrated cannabis. Medical patients can technically travel with a larger amount if needed for their condition, though experts say sticking to an ounce is safest since it’s otherwise up to the discretion of individual officers.
Pending legislation would require cannabis in cars to be kept in a sealed container that’s not accessible to the driver. Think of it like alcohol: A corked bottle of wine in the trunk is OK; an open beer in the cup holder is not.
That pending law also solidifies that it’s never legal to consume cannabis while driving. But there’s also no accepted standard for marijuana impairment in California, with new laws and roadside tests in the works.
For road trippers who plan to leave California, Seattle-based attorney Alison Malsbury says to keep in mind that it’s still a federal crime to take cannabis across any border.
If someone is caught bringing cannabis into a federal checkpoint zone — even one that’s miles from an international border, like the one in northern San Diego County — Malsbury said authorities are required to seize that marijuana. But since federal agencies typically don’t monitor checkpoints between states or interstate highways, state authorities get to decide how to respond if they catch someone suspected of carrying weed across those borders.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture, which monitors 16 inspection stations near state borders, only checks for invasive plant species and animals, spokesman Steve Lyle said.
“Our inspection employees are not law enforcement officers,” he said. “The transport of cannabis across state lines, even between states that are currently regulating it, is a violation of federal law and falls outside of CDFA’s jurisdiction.”
Sgt. Dan Kyle with the California Highway Patrol’s Border Division said his officers also are only concerned with California limits on possession and rules for transportation.
“We’re not out enforcing federal laws regarding interstate travel with drugs,” Kyle said. “We follow the state laws.”
But in places like Nebraska and Idaho, Malsbury said state troopers know there’s easy money to be made if they catch and fine people carrying cannabis purchased in Colorado or Washington.
Even travelers who are sticking to states with marijuana laws on the books should keep in mind that laws for possession and transportation can differ.
The other seven states that have legalized recreational cannabis have rules that are largely similar to California, but policies on medical marijuana vary. Dispensaries in some states, not all, will recognize a doctor’s recommendation from California. Some states have legalized the same range of cannabis products and qualifying conditions as California, while others only permit cannabis oils to treat a small number of ailments.
Unless marijuana is legalized federally, Malsbury said, legal gaps and conflicts will continue to pose problems for weed-toting travelers.
So, for now, she said, “It’s better to keep and consume your cannabis in the state where you bought it.”
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