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15 December 2013

Airline travel and marijuana

Starting next month, two US states, Washington and Colorado, will allow any adult aged 21 or over to purchase small amounts of marijuana (cannabis), without any prescription, license, or other special permission.

While marijuana has been available for sale for medicinal purposes for several years in numerous states, including Washington and Colorado, the changes that will happen in 2014 are significant because the general public, including air travelers from other states and countries, will be able to legally buy and consume marijuana.

Although many of the details of how marijuana laws and regulations will be enforced within Colorado and Washington are still being worked out, the laws and regulations related to airline travel and marijuana are very clear. Any airline passenger who intends to travel to the states of Washington or Colorado for the purpose of legally consuming marijuana should be aware of a few basic realities about air travel and marijuana.

Key things passengers should know
There are a few key things that any airline passenger should understand about the changes in the laws that may impact their decisions to travel to or from the states of Washington or Colorado:

  • Federal law has not changed: Marijuana has been, and continues to be illegal at the federal (national) level. No federal laws have changed, but the federal government has allowed the governments of individual states to allow for the production, distribution, and consumption of marijuana related products within that state's borders. While about 20 states allow the use of medical marijuana, only two, Washington and Colorado, have also allowed for the sale and use of non-medical marijuana.
  • Possession is limited at airports: The federal government has banned marijuana from any federal property, or any areas under federal control. That would include the secure areas of the airport (the areas inside the TSA screening areas), and on any airliners.
  • You can't fly with marijuana: The federal government bans marijuana, even medical marijuana, on aircraft, whether in a carry-on item, in checked bags, or in any package being shipped by air.
  • Medial marijuana is treated the same: The federal government makes no distinction between medical marijuana and other kinds of marijuana.

The TSA and marijuana

The TSA is not a law enforcement agency, and the TSA has stated that its security officers do not specifically search for illegal drugs. If a marijuana-related item is discovered, even in states where marijuana is legal, TSA's policy is to refer the matter to law enforcement to make a determination on how to proceed.

Since law enforcement at an airport typically handled by a local or state level law enforcement agency, how a passenger will be treated will depend on the location and the circumstances. At the very least, the passenger's marijuana will likely be confiscated.

Entering the US with marijuana
The situation is different for someone traveling to Colorado or Washington from outside of the US. All passengers entering the US must pass through US customs, and the federal government will not allow marijuana to enter the country. Also banned are any articles that are intended to be used with marijuana. In addition, non-US citizens who attempt to enter the US with marijuana or marijuana-related items may be prevented from entering the US.

US customs officials may also bar from the country non-US citizens who are attempting to enter the US for the purposes of engaging in illegal activities. Since the consumption of marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, if you are not a US citizen and you are entering the US for the purpose of consuming marijuana in Washington or Colorado, it is possible that you could be prevented from entering the country, even though your activity is considered legal within those states.

Follow upcoming developments
This article is the first of many that will discuss these upcoming changes in Washington and Colorado, and how those changes may affect airline passengers who are traveling to or from those states for the purpose of consuming marijuana. In the next few weeks, will be publishing a number of updates about the changes in marijuana laws and regulations and how they may affect air travelers. To receive those updates, please subscribe to the mailing list.

Photo credit: JonRichfield

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