All photos via iStock
Disclaimer: This guide is written for educational purposes only. It does not provide specific legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for competent legal counsel from a licensed attorney in your state or country.
This past week, Canada’s cannabis legalization law went into effect, permitting the production, sale, distribution and possession of recreational marijuana for all adults in the country. While freshly legal pot shops were unable to keep up with the high demand many running out of product within days, some celebrated legal weed by taking their stash to the skies. As of October 17th, any adult flying within Canada may now pack up to 30 grams of cannabis (the maximum quantity legally possessable in public) with them for the journey. No dice for any tourists hoping to take home the sweet leaf as a souvenir, though, as bringing legal cannabis outside of Canada is strictly prohibited.
This is starting to get confusing for North Americans, who are now subject to a patchwork of widely differing weed laws across the continent. While nearly the entire West Coast — from Alaska to British Columbia to Washington State, Oregon, and California (sorry, Baja) — is legally 420-friendly, you’re still technically not allowed to fly between these locales with legal pot in your luggage. Similarly, one can travel overland between Quebec, Vermont, and Massachusetts — all places where recreational cannabis is legal — but good luck doing so holding a bag of bud without Border Patrol jamming you up.
The moment of truth
This predicament may make perfect sense to lawyers and political scientists, but for humans who simply want to enjoy their herb wherever they may be, it’s a strange moment within the changing socio-legal culture around marijuana. Flying with weed is already a nerve-wracking experience, especially for medical marijuana users who require the substance for health maintenance. The uneven legalization of cannabis around the world — including the U.S., where only nine states have fully legitimized it — makes an already fraught situation even more complicated.
However, taking pot on an airplane is technically possible within the States; it just depends on where you’re coming from, where you’re heading, and how much informed legal risk you’re willing to assume. So, to break it all down with the latest rules and regulations (just in time for trips during the holiday season), here’s our guide to flying with weed in North America, starting off with legal pot hotspots, followed by general guidelines for traveling with ganja on the rest of the continent. Always remember to use common sense, and that airplanes are non-smoking regardless of the substance (don’t be this guy), and you should be able to avoid the Feds. Safe travels!
There are plenty of things you should know — whether you’re a Canadian resident or international traveler — before you board a flight with weed in the Great White North. First of all, the legal age of possession varies between provinces: for example, if you’re 18 years old in Alberta, you can legally purchase and possess cannabis, but not in, say, Manitoba. Check the local laws before you begin your travels.
Although you can travel on flights within Canada carrying cannabis (up to 30 grams) in either checked or carry-on bags, possession during international travel — including medical marijuana — is still prohibited. Discovery of cannabis while boarding an international flight may even end in your arrest.
“Upon cannabis legalization, it will remain illegal to import into Canada, or export from Canada, cannabis without a valid permit, issued by the Government of Canada,” a spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency tells MERRY JANE. “The unauthorized movement of cannabis across Canada’s international borders will remain a serious criminal offence, subject to enforcement up to and including criminal investigation and prosecution.”
If you’re a Canadian citizen travelling to the U.S. carrying cannabis product, you may be detained at the airport and denied entry to the U.S. upon discovery. But it doesn’t even require carrying cannabis to get held up by officials at U.S.-Canada border, regardless if you’re going by ground or air.
Toronto Pearson International Airport
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials previously announced they may deny entry to any Canadian who admits to using legal pot or works in the legal cannabis industry (both U.S. and Canadian officials are demanding more clarity to this policy). If a marijuana conviction in Canada comes up during a traveler’s background check, Canadians can also be denied entry to the States. Officials in Ottawa have announced they plan to introduce legislation that will pardon Canadians of past pot convictions, but U.S. officials are not required to recognize such pardons, and may continue blocking cannabis-using Canucks from the U.S.
So, in summary, as long as you’re of legal age, carrying 30 grams or less, and traveling strictly within Canada’s borders, you’re free to move about the cabin with cannabis up north. Just don’t light up until you land!
The United States
Flying with pot in the U.S. is a far more puzzling prospect. Unlike in Canada, individual states have moved ahead of the federal government in pursuing cannabis reform, birthing a situation in which you can fly from Los Angeles to Seattle and buy legal weed on both ends, but still technically aren’t allowed to take any leftovers with you by plane under federal law, which bans controlled substances from U.S. airspace.
However, particular airports in canna-legal states have adopted their own policies on pot, granting some leeway to flyers who ‘forget’ to leave their flower at home. We’ll use our home base of Los Angeles, California as an example, then proceed to other major airports with explicit rules for legal reefer.
In September of this year, an update to the Los Angeles Airport’s website garnered many headlines announcing that passengers can now take a state-legal quantity of cannabis (up to 28.5 grams) through LAX security and onto their flights. Yet this wasn’t actually a new policy: while legal adult-use cannabis sales didn’t begin in California until January 2018, recreational cannabis use became legal as soon as voters passed Proposition 64 in November 2016.
Outside Los Angeles International Airport
Accordingly, L.A. airport authorities confirmed to the Boston Globe in February 2017 that if Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials discover marijuana in a passenger’s bags, they’d be referred to local airport police. Since airport cops only have the power to enforce state law, if a passenger’s holding a legal amount of pot, then LAX police will let them proceed through security to their flight.
Pretty cool, huh? If you’re late for your flight out of the City of Angels, you do risk wasting a bunch of time talking about your take-home pot with police, but policy states you’ll ultimately be let on your way. This could be more complicated if you pack your bud in checked baggage rather than your carry-on, so keep it with you. Furthermore, LAX’s policy is careful to note that “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.”
But when was the last time you were searched getting off of a flight within the U.S.? It’s very uncommon, so even if you’re landing in a state that’s not yet hip to herb, you can probably get your weed to your final destination as long as you’re discreet about it. Don’t let your time in 420 country make you forget about the perils of prohibition…
Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts — another state which legalized recreational cannabis in 2016 — follows the same policy as LAX, meaning if you’re traveling with an ounce or less of marijuana, it’s legal under state law to have it in the terminal. If TSA discovers it, they’ll “kick [it] over to local law enforcement,” and once state police verify that you’re over 21 and have a legal quantity, “you’ll be let go in peace” to your flight, as local TSA and Massachusetts State Police spokespersons confirmed to the Boston Globe last year.
Again, the rules may be much different wherever you’re heading than in the Bay State, so be prepared to travel discreetly once you land.
While Colorado was one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use and sales in 2014, its main airport in Denver still takes a more cautious approach to cannabis. Even after LAX’s policy got republicized last month, officials at Denver International reiterated that carrying pot on airport property is strictly prohibited under its own rules.
Passengers are supposed to discard their dank before arriving at the airport, and if police find legal amounts of any pot-based products, they ask flyers to return the items home, and if they can’t, they’re simply confiscated without consequence of criminal penalty. A Denver Airport spokesperson confirmed to the L.A. Times earlier this year that “No one has been in trouble for this... we've not had problems with discarded MJ. All has gone well.”
While one could possibly get less conspicuous items through Denver International, like edibles or vapes, just know that according to the airport, it’s not kosher.
Nevada legalized recreational cannabis in 2017, and it’s quickly become big business in Sin City and elsewhere in the Silver State. However because of the state’s status as a renown hub for legal gambling — and the federal gaming licenses it requires to stay operating — state and municipal authorities have resolved to stay on the Feds’ good side and keep what’s still a federally prohibited substance out of its casinos, hotels, and yes, airports (where gambling also takes place).
At McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, as well as at smaller terminals in Henderson and North Las Vegas, carrying cannabis is strictly prohibited. If pot’s discovered in your bags or on your person, local police just won’t confiscate it — they’ll cite you for the violation if it’s a legal quantity, and arrest you if it’s not. To help travelers avoid this predicament, authorities have installed green “amnesty boxes” for passengers to ditch their bud or other products outside of McCarran, its associated rental car center, and other airports in the county.
Nevada isn’t playing around, so what you smoke in Vegas should probably stay in Vegas.
The policy for pot at Portland International Airport has been the same since 2015, when Oregon legalized cannabis: passengers are allowed to carry a legal quantity of recreational marijuana onto their flight as long as they’re not heading outside of the state, and airport personnel are reportedly checking to make sure you’re in compliance. Otherwise, flyers will be asked to stash it somewhere for later retrieval, or to dump it.
Portland’s airport is also explicit about rules for medical marijuana: you’ll be let on your way with your weed as long as you have an Oregon Medical Marijuana card and are holding a legally allowable amount, though they remind travelers that they’re still subject to local laws at their destination.
The cultural capital of northern California has a legendary history with herb, but how do airport authorities at San Francisco International deal with it? An airport information officer confirmed to SF Weekly that while it’s not “official” policy, the discovery of cannabis is dealt with just the same way as it is in Los Angeles that now adult-use marijuana is fully legal in California. If TSA finds it and local police assess it’s a legal amount, you’ll be sent on your way through security with a warning about marijuana laws wherever your journey ends. Keep it under an ounce, and your grass should be good to go!
Washington State was the very first in the union to legalize recreational cannabis back in 2012, allowing possession of up to an ounce by any adult over 21. The Evergreen State’s progressive leadership on pot is reflected at its main airport, Seattle-Tacoma International, and it’s the same deal as in California, as the L.A. Times confirmed earlier this year: if you’re in compliance with local laws, airport police will let onto your flight.
Recreational reefer has been legal on the Last Frontier since 2014. While airport authorities allow licensed canna-business employees to transport marijuana products on commercial airlines (as it’s sometimes the only viable way to distribute legal weed in the state’s unforgiving climate), MERRY JANE could not confirm with airport officials or through other reporting whether passengers are permitted to bring grass onto terminal grounds.
Maine and Vermont
Recreational cannabis use is legal in these New England states, but MERRY JANE couldn’t confirm pot policies at airports in either locale. You wouldn’t be able to easily find legal weed in stores in either state anyway — the actual sale of adult-use marijuana is still prohibited in Vermont, and legal cannabis sales aren’t due to start in Maine until spring of 2019 at earliest.
Until then, as a TSA spokesperson told MERRY JANE, “...if during the security screening process a TSA officer discovers an item that may violate the law, TSA refers the matter to law enforcement. Law enforcement officials will determine whether to initiate a criminal investigation or what steps – if any – will be taken.”
The worst part of flying
So if you’re departing from a state that doesn’t allow medical or recreational possession, prohibition law and its harsh penalties fully apply. This is especially important to remember if you’re flying back to a canna-legal state from an airport where marijuana is still prohibited — taking any leftover bud back with you could land you in the clink instead of safe and sound at home.
While you may have heard that Mexico legalized medical marijuana last year, it’s still not liberalized enough to the point that they’ll recognize an international traveler’s cannabis-based medication, unfortunately. While this seemingly isn’t stopping many Mexicans from taking legal Cali kush home with them, there could still be a big price to pay if you’re caught. Better safe than sorry, we say — get your mota south of the border.
When Will This Become Simpler?
Despite well over half of U.S. having legalized cannabis for some purpose, the challenge of traveling with pot in North America — whether by land or air — will only be resolved when the U.S. federal government follows in Canada’s footsteps and ends marijuana prohibition at the national level. It’s hard to imagine Mexico maintaining prohibition once both of its northern neighbors have abandoned it, and it’s already moving towards full legalization. All these countries will eventually have to get on the same page on pot for North Americans to travel freely with their trees.
For now, if you’re traveling solely in Canada with your legal kush, you’re golden; if you’re in Mexico, keep it hidden and off of transportation; and if you’re in the U.S., make sure you know the local rules wherever you are, and most importantly, use your best judgment! If you’re in doubt, don’t worry about leaving it at home — legal or illegal, weed can be found pretty much anywhere...