The TSA doesn’t care about your “jazz cabbage.”
Really. It doesn’t. The Transportation Security Administration, which is in charge of airport security, said exactly that in a social media post on April 20 about passengers packing cannabis.
But if you’re dumb enough to carry your marijuana next to a switchblade or a corkscrew, you’ll be grounded. A security agent will be obliged to notify local police.
“Our officers aren’t looking for contraband, but if you pack it with a knife or other prohibited item, you might as well stick a fork in it. We’re going to find it,” the TSA stated in a July post to its Instagram account. “TSA doesn’t have any regulations that address the possession or transportation of marijuana and cannabis-infused products, but under federal law and many state laws, it’s a crime to possess or transport any detectable amount of marijuana.”
For the most part, the overwhelming majority of air passengers holding weed — medical or otherwise — waltz through airport security every day without the TSA seizing their stash or calling police.
At Philadelphia International Airport, police arrested a grand total of 12 passengers this year for carrying small amounts of cannabis, according to a Philadelphia police spokesperson. Given the swarms of people who pass through airport security every day on their way to departure gates, that’s a tiny number.
Because possession of less than an ounce of marijuana has been decriminalized throughout the city, the dozen violators each received a police citation and were sent on their way. (It’s unclear how many of them missed their flights, though.)
Philadelphia International has no official policy on the matter, said spokesperson Diane Gerace.
Attorneys, however, are unified in their opinion. Every lawyer contacted by the Inquirer and Daily News issued a stern warning about jetting with cannabis.
“It’s still wildly illegal on the federal level, and every state program has written into the law that it’s prohibited to take it across state lines,” said William Roark, a specialist in cannabis law who co-chairs the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s committee on marijuana and hemp. “I wouldn’t advise any client to try doing it.”
Busts are uncommon. Yet, on occasion, a search at PHL turns up a local celebrity with a taste for nugs. In 2016, TSA agents pulled former Philadelphia mayoral candidate Sam Katz off a Florida-bound flight before it left the gate. Katz, now a documentary filmmaker, was issued a citation.
The bewildering patchwork of state laws regarding marijuana can be confusing.
Los Angeles International Airport issued a statement this year explicitly announcing that the airport was OK with anyone carrying less than an ounce. At Boston’s Logan International, officials hew the same laissez-faire line, according to the Boston Globe. Recreational use became legal this year in Massachusetts.
But those leaving Colorado should exercise more caution. At Denver International, passengers are asked to surrender any canna-goodies before boarding. They run the risk of confiscation if they don’t, said an airport spokesman.
Patrick Nightingale, a criminal defense attorney who represents marijuana cases in Pittsburgh, said he’s unaware of any arrests at the Iron City’s jet hub, “and my friend is a magistrate who covers that airport.”
“Interdiction is a different thing. That’s where people are flying with pounds of cannabis or thousands of dollars in drug money,” Nightingale said. “But me flying out of Pittsburgh International with a personal amount of [marijuana] medication has never been an issue. I still wouldn’t advise a client to try that. But if you’re going to do it, be cautious and discreet, unless you enjoy becoming involved with local or federal authorities.”
Returning to Philadelphia with cannabis on a domestic flight is rarely a problem. Arriving on an international flight with weed comes with a higher degree of risk.
Passengers returning from overseas must pass through a federal inspection station, said Steve Sapp, spokesman for Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
“Federal law applies,” Sapp said. “And the U.S. government regards all marijuana as strictly illegal.”
CBP catches a “couple of dozen” international passengers every year trying to enter the country with cannabis or paraphernalia.
“I wouldn’t say it happens every day,” Sapp said. "We have a flight that comes from Amsterdam, and we often have a German shepherd or a Belgian Malinois there to greet it. People come in with edibles. hash, small amounts of weed. There are flights from Jamaica and Mexico that are also on our radar.
“We seize whatever they have, the weed grinders or pipes. We issue a Zero Tolerance Penalty, which usually comes with a $500 fine, but it can be more,” Sapp said. “It’s not an epidemic or a huge issue. I think most people are smart enough to realize to leave that stuff behind.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Health advises medical marijuana patients to take the same precautions they would as if they were driving: Patients carrying cannabis medicines should make certain to have the original receipt; keep the medicine in its original container; and always carry the state-issued patient card, said department spokesperson Nate Wardle.
“The laws of the air are not regulated by individual states,” said Wardle. “Anyone using medical marijuana must keep federal law in mind when flying.”
One last thing: No one should ever smoke or vape cannabis on a plane. Don’t even think of sneaking into the tiny loo to do it. The airlines maintain a zero tolerance policy. Get caught, and the buzzkill will be near-instant: it’s a one-way ticket to embarrassment, seizure, or an airport holding cell at your destination. Keep your holiday travels happy. Don’t do it.