Like most Americans, I dread and detest the act of traveling at Thanksgiving time; like most Americans, I subject myself to this ordeal every year just the same. In 2015, at least the routine was more merciful than usual: Get north from San Francisco to Portland. Easy—a short domestic flight, no customs; a quick trip of a few days over a long weekend, no need for a checked bag. No problem.
Since life is short and our precious time on the mortal coil is best spent anywhere else than in virtual captivity at an airport, I arrived at SFO with the usual efficiency, allotting just enough time to sprint through security and make it to the gate for the final boarding call. I was on schedule to do just this, when, shoeless, belt-less, my pockets empty and my arms over my head in surrender, I glimpsed my carry-on bag slide off of the security conveyor belt and into the hands of a TSA officer.
“Is this yours?” the officer asked me.
Let’s take a step back. The year before, Oregon voters legalized recreational cannabis. Portland’s retail dispensaries had just opened for business. The plan for the trip included the requisite pilgrimage to Stumptown coffee as well as a tour of the city’s cannabis offerings. I’d heard the weed was just fine, and I was eager to try some.
But I live in California. The outdoor harvest was in. So of course I packed a few glass jars filled with the finest Humboldt and Mendocino have to offer. Arriving empty-handed, with nothing to share after the Thanksgiving feast, would be rude. But since I pack as efficiently as I travel, these jars weren’t stashed anywhere discrete—they were right on top. This saved the TSA officer the trouble of digging through my collection of t-shirts and hoodies to find them.
Thus, the dance began.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“That… is medical cannabis,” I said, a shot of adrenaline-fueled anxiety putting just the slightest hairline crack into my confidence.
I was prepared for this. You see, for the better part of a decade, I’ve flown with marijuana nearly everywhere I go. I do this for a variety of reasons, chief of which is that I can. (Second and third-place reasons are, I’d rather not patronize a black-market dealer where I’m going if it’s an illegal state, and I’d rather bring the weed I have than spend money on more otherwise.) And not once have I ever had any trouble—even when TSA looked through my belongings and found some weed.
If you’re reading this, you can, too.
Many, many people do it, whether they’re growers flying to international Cannabis Cups or normal civilians.
It’s remarkably easy, and requires little more than common sense and abiding by a few rules. Here’s how.
Remember What TSA Does.
The youngest of the cabinet-level federal departments, Homeland Security’s Transit Security Administration is in the job of looking for things that might lead to a reprise of 9/11, fear of which is what’s led us to take off our shoes, empty our pockets and be subjected to Donald Trump-level sexual assault all for the thin veneer of safety.
Since it was natives of trusted U.S. ally Saudi Arabia armed with box-cutters that got us into this mess, not Lebanese blond hash, TSA has acted (for once) appropriately. In other words: They are not there to look for drugs.
“Our officers are focused on security and are not searching specifically for substances that aren’t a threat to the aircraft,” TSA spokesman Bruce Anderson confirmed to High Times in an email.
Now. If you’re trafficking in pounds, or more likely, if your rolling bag is full of $50,000 in cash on either end of such a trafficking jaunt, you may find yourself greeted at the gate by law enforcement, who TSA can (and does) call if they do discover drugs during a screening.
But who does the TSA call? If you’re packing weed, they won’t call the FBI or the DEA. They call the law enforcement agency responsible for patrolling the airport. They call the local cops—who enforce local law, not federal law.
It’s a common misconception that airports are beholden to federal law. But it’s also a common mistake to believe that just because marijuana is legal in the state where you’re boarding, the same holds true at the airport.
Know The Lay Of The Land
Perhaps the single most important rule of all is to know the rules. This means knowing more than simply if cannabis is legal or not in your state of origin and destination. You need to know the rules of the airport.
In Denver, for example, the airport has declared all possession of marijuana to be illegal. If you’re caught with cannabis, they won’t jail you or fine you, but they will make you throw your weed out.
In Portland, police will check your boarding pass before letting you go. If you’re flying to somewhere else within state lines—which evidently is a thing—you’re free to board, weed in hand. If you’re flying somewhere else, even to a state where cannabis is also legal, you’ll be asked to go back through security and dispense with the weed somehow.
In San Francisco, you’re allowed to board with an ounce—but if you have your medical cannabis recommendation, you’re allowed to board with eight ounces.
In other words, airports are for the most part just as permissive as the states in which they’re located. This has led to a general air of “who gives a fuck” at security, at least in legal states.
Case in point: In the month of January 2017, Portland police were called to security at PDX after TSA discovered drugs three times. The year before, they were called twice. Nobody will come out and say it, but drugs just aren’t a priority.
“Their primary mission is to look for things prohibited on board an aircraft that can compromise the safety of the flight,” Portland airport spokeswoman Kama Simonds told High Times.
In Denver, drugs going through security are such a big deal that after 2015, when 29 people were stopped at security, out of 54 million passengers, they stopped keeping statistics, airport spokesman Heath Montgomery told High Times.
Once past security and aboard your flight, you’re in the clear until you get to your destination. Once there, your risk factors are the same they’d be anywhere else: A ticket for blatantly boneheaded public smoking in a legal state; a citation or misdemeanor arrest from an asshole cop in New York City; or something far worse, depending on the amount, the color of your skin and the demeanor of the cop somewhere else.
What About Internationally?
This, for obvious reasons, is the biggest risk. But, for all the reasons mentioned before, the risk won’t be in the United States. You’ll be dealing with the same TSA and be able to get on board your flight with the same ease. What happens when you land in your foreign destination is up to you—but also up to the attitude of the local gendarmes.
Last year, a close friend spent more than a month in Eastern Europe. Since that’s a long sojourn, he packed several vape pen cartridges and a few ounces, and nothing happened (aside from getting stoned in his father-in-law’s backyard on the regular).
This wasn’t just a leap of faith: cannabis cultivation is so rampant in the Balkans that simple possession would likely not have been a big deal. Conversely, when I was stuffing my bag for a jaunt to Thailand, a few stories about bribing Thai police and the conditions in Thai jails was enough to convince me to leave the weed at home—though, later during this trip, while in Hong Kong, the availability and price of weed smuggled in from Namibia, of all places, made me wish I’d taken the risk and snuck something into my carry-on.
Which brings us to the last cardinal rule of cannabis travel.
Carry-On. Carry-On. Carry-On.
You know what? I take back the above maxim about knowing the rules. Of equal importance is where you pack your stash—and you must pack your stash in your carry-on. Repeat: Do not put it in your checked luggage!
The reason for this is simple: The likelihood of your carry-on being searched, as long as you’re not trying to pack something blatantly banned like a can of spray paint, a lighter or a half-full bottle of wine, is slim.
But as Lifehacker recently explained, the roll call of red flags for TSA that can trigger a search of your checked bag is a veritable shopping list of harmless everyday items that includes phone chargers, food, toiletries and clothes—in short, anything that anyone going anywhere flies with, always.
Since marijuana is illegal to transport across state lines, it’s contraband and can be yanked from your bag without redress.
“But I’ve flown with XXX amount stuffed in my disgusting checkered Vans many a time,” you may say.
Since we’re already in the business of taking risks, what’s one more? Let’s ponder that question when you arrive at your destination, pop open your bag and find the “YOU’VE BEEN SEARCHED!” ticket and no weed.
But this means you should police your carry-on for the things that do trigger a search, particularly if you’re in a place where cannabis is not legal. Such basic preparation is why I’ve never been stopped going through security in New Orleans, New York or St. Louis—and is the reason why a forgotten bike tool, hidden at the very bottom of a hastily-packed, holiday-time carry-on was why my bag was diverted and subsequently dismantled by a TSA agent in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Eve.
Even then, it was clear she’d been through this before.
“Do you have your paperwork?” she asked.
But of course. I presented my medical marijuana recommendation, and she and I made small talk while a San Francisco police officer could be summoned to check everything. A few minutes later, a cop appeared, riding a Segway. He barely took the time to step off before nodding at the TSA agents and rolling away.
“You’re all set. Have a nice flight,” the agent told me.
By that time, my flight had long since departed, leaving me plenty of time to sit at the airport bar and ponder over an Irish coffee the necessity of taking more care when packing. Next time, I’d leave the bike tool at home—and bring some pressed hash instead.