Laws regarding marijuana are quickly changing around the US. But what does this mean for flying and getting through TSA airport security?
There is a lot to consider on the topic but it’s not as complex as you might think if you break it all down the right way. In this article, I will cover everything you need to know about TSA’s rules on marijuana and how to fly sky high with weed.
What are TSA’s rules on marijuana?
TSA is not actively looking for marijuana when you go through airport security.
However, if they discover that you have marijuana they may refer you to local law-enforcement. Depending on the state and local laws, you could be subject to criminal prosecution, have your stash confiscated, or simply not face any consequences.
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TSA stands for “Transportation Security Administration” and the purpose is to “strengthen the security of the nation’s transportation systems while ensuring the freedom of movement for people and commerce.”
TSA is concerned about dangerous threats such as explosives and not with enforcing laws and penal codes. This is why they do not check for arrest warrants.
So TSA agents are not actively going to search your carry-on bag or personal item for marijuana.
That should make you feel a little bit better if you were planning on bringing marijuana on a plane but you still need to understand that you can still get busted for marijuana even in states that have legalized it.
Keep reading below for more.
The federal status of marijuana
Marijuana with over 0.3% THC is a “Schedule I” drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and illegal to possess.
So trying to get it through airport security (which is controlled by federal employees) can still be very problematic.
The official TSA stance on marijuana (including medical marijuana) is this:
Marijuana and certain cannabis infused products, including some Cannabidiol (CBD) oil, remain illegal under federal law [. . .] TSA officers are required to report any suspected violations of law to local, state or federal authorities.
“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.
So TSA officers are required to report violations of the law and it is explicitly stated that they will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer. What exactly happens when you get referred depends on the state laws and local laws/ordinances of the airport.
Related: Can You Bring CBD on a Plane?
Airports have different rules about carrying marijuana within the airport.
LAX provides a pretty good explanation of how things currently stand:
As of January 1, 2018, California law allows for individuals 21 years of age or older to possess up to 28.5 grams of marijuana and 8 grams of concentrated marijuana for personal consumption. With the change in state law, the policy and procedures of the Los Angeles Airport Police Division (APD) regarding marijuana were updated to reflect this change.
APD officers, who are California Peace Officers, have no jurisdiction to arrest individuals if they are complying with state law. However, airport guests should be aware that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening stations are under federal jurisdiction. Also, passengers should be aware that marijuana laws vary state by state and they are encouraged to check the laws of the states in which they plan to travel.
This gives us some guidance to understand how things currently work.
First, some airports such as LAX make it 100% legal to possess certain quantities of marijuana within the airport and state that airport police do not have jurisdiction to arrest travelers so long as they are complying with the laws on marijuana possession.
Airports in New York recently made it legal to possess weed at their airports as well.
So if you were just walking through the airport terminal with weed in your pocket you would not be breaking the law or subject to being arrested.
But note that some states where marijuana is legal still have airports that ban marijuana within the airport.
This is the case at Denver International Airport (DEN) and McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas, which has an ordinance banning possession.
At these airports you may find so-called “amnesty boxes” which are designed for you to drop your marijuana products into before heading through the airport.
If you are hyperventilating about getting arrested it might be a good idea to go ahead and drop your goods in such a box (or perhaps just drop them in the trash more discreetly).
TSA screening stations
The tricky part is that the TSA screening stations are under federal jurisdiction (or at least abide by federal laws). So when you are transporting marijuana through a TSA security station you are arguably in violation of federal law.
The policy mentioned above of referring you to law-enforcement comes into play here.
At airports like LAX in California, you would expect airport police to simply allow you to fly with your weed assuming you are within the limits allowed.
If you are above those limits you could be charged with drug trafficking so it is a line that you absolutely need to pay attention to so that you don’t cross it.
In places where marijuana is prohibited, getting referred to law-enforcement could mean getting ticketed or arrested.
Finally, there is the consideration of state laws.
If you were flying from LAX to a state like Texas where marijuana is not legal the big consideration would be that once you land any possession of marijuana is illegal. So if for some reason your checked baggage was inspected in Texas and they found marijuana, you would be in violation of the law.
According to TSA reps, TSA agents do not factor in the legality of marijuana in the state you are in or the state you’re headed to. To them, it’s all the same. I doubt it plays out like that in practice, though.
Would an agent living in a state where marijuana is legal be as inclined to refer someone to law-enforcement as an agent living in a state where it is illegal?
I doubt it.
The key questions to ask
Many admit that the current status of marijuana laws in air travel is a bit of a tangled mess.
States and airports have different policies and TSA agents have different inclinations in how they handle their “discovery” of marijuana. Therefore, it is really hard to guarantee how each case will play out.
But I would boil it down to answering the following three questions:
- Has the state you are departing from legalized marijuana?
- Are you within the state’s legal limits of personal possession of marijuana (quantity and age)?
- Does the airport allow passengers to posses marijuana?
If the answer to all three of these questions is “yes,” you should not have to worry about getting arrested or your weed getting confiscated when going through airport security.
There still is the issue that when flying you are subject to federal jurisdiction so technically it is still illegal to bring marijuana on a plane but as long as you are not toking up during take-off (or in a lavatory) that should not be an issue.
If you answer “no” to any of those questions above there is always a risk you could be arrested.
Also, if the destination you are landing at has not legalized marijuana there could be a problem if you or your bag is searched there.
Related: Can You Smoke Weed in a Hotel Room?
What can happen when you get caught with marijuana at the airport
If you were bringing weed through airport security there are a number of different things that could happen (or not happen).
A lot of people head through airport security every day and a lot of them have some type of marijuana with them. Yet, nothing at all happens. It’s entirely possible that you could get through airport security without any issues whatsoever.
Get referred to law enforcement and nothing happens
It’s possible that a TSA agent could discover that you have marijuana and report you to a law enforcement officer only for that officer to basically say that it is okay for you to fly with marijuana.
Marijuana gets disposed
If a TSA agent discovers that you have marijuana they could simply throw it out if they don’t feel like referring you to law enforcement.
You get fined or arrested
In some cases you could get referred to law enforcement and get fined, cited, or taken to the slammer. If you are a frequent flyer with Global Entry you could potentially lose your membership so that is a risk to consider.
How travelers get caught with marijuana
The people who typically get caught with marijuana in airport security are those who make things easily discoverable. There are two things to consider about getting caught with marijuana: 1) the type (or state) of the marijuana and 2) the location of your marijuana.
Type of marijuana
The type of marijuana that you are traveling with and the location you store it in will often dictate what happens.
TSA agents could easily discover marijuana when it is in its natural flower state. For one, it often carries a pretty pungent odor and has a pretty distinct look. It’s also often accompanied by jars or other cannabis items.
If you are bringing flower/bud with you and you have a grinder that will be visible on an x-ray that is pretty much asking to get caught and potentially arrested depending on where you are. Unless you are in a state and an airport where marijuana possession is legal, transporting marijuana in its flower state is pretty risky.
Edibles can be virtually indistinguishable from normal chocolates, gummies, and baked goods. Since you are allowed to bring food through TSA, edibles are one of the hardest types of MJ to detect in your luggage.
The packaging on edibles should display that there is THC and a lot of times the actual edibles will have a THC designation. So if a TSA agent did take a close look it wouldn’t be hard for them to know that you were transporting THC unless there was no packaging indicating that.
A lot of vape cartridges containing THC look identical to those containing CBD or other non-THC products. For this reason, it is very difficult for a TSA agent to know that your vape has illegal THC.
Be careful about bringing vapes because there are specific rules about batteries.
You never want to carry lithium-ion batteries in your checked baggage and you may be limited to just two vape batteries for your carry-on. If you go overboard with vapes or batteries you may be calling attention to yourself which could lead to a closer inspection of your items.
Related: TSA Rules for Vapes and e-Cigarettes
Creams & oils
If you have THC or CBD in powder form sometimes powders can force you to undergo extra scrutiny so be aware of that risk.
On your person
Putting cannabis or cannabis related products such as a pipe, joint papers, vape, etc. in your pocket when heading through something like a full-body scanner will almost always be detected.
Those scanners can pick up even the smallest items and TSA agents will see exactly where the item is located. You will then be searched until the item is found. At that point, you will be at the mercy of the TSA agent or the law enforcement officer you get referred to.
Your carry-on and personal item such as a backpack will have to go through the x-ray scanner at airport security. An attentive and experienced TSA agent could easily detect obvious cannabis items like grinders and pipes and probably a bag of bud as well.
But as mentioned above some items like edibles and vape cartridges are basically indistinguishable from legal items so it would require a TSA agent to be very curious (and basically out to hunt for THC items) in order for them to inspect them.
If you are subject to SSSS screening it is possible that an agent will take a very close look at all of the items in your carry-on bag and could then discover that you have marijuana. It will be up to their discretion to decide what to do.
There are a lot of crevices and pockets you could find in a checked baggage so TSA agents may struggle to find (or identify) your pot in checked baggage, especially if it is in edible or vape form. And even if they did find it, they may just throw it out without referring you to law enforcement.
Some TSA agents are on record stating that if an item is found in your checked baggage it would simply be thrown out and they would not bother with tracking you down for a potential arrest.
However, if you are trying to transport high quantities of marijuana in your checked baggage that might be more easily detected and depending on the amount, you could be charged with drug trafficking if caught.
Tip: Avoid trying to conceal marijuana and vapes inside of things like a jar of peanut butter. That looks very suspicious and could easily be detected as a threat.
What about the dogs at the airport?
If you see a dog sniffing around at the airport it is most likely sniffing out potential explosives and not drugs such as marijuana.
In other countries drug sniffing dogs are more common so just be aware that at some airports it is possible for a dog to be tracking down drugs.
International travel is a completely different ballgame when it comes to marijuana.
You are not allowed to transport marijuana to other countries and some countries have some very draconian laws when it comes to getting caught with drugs so it is not something you would want to test.
My advice would be to never attempt to fly internationally with marijuana because the penalties could be very severe.
Related: Can You Take Cigarettes on a Plane?
When it comes to TSA and marijuana laws we don’t have 100% clarity on how things will be handled in every case. But we do have a general idea of how things will play out.
If you transport marijuana discreetly (edible, vape, etc.) there is a low chance that it will be detected. And if you are in a state where it is legal and an airport where it is not banned, there is essentially no risk of you getting in trouble with the law despite it being illegal on the federal level.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.