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How to Travel With Medical Marijuana

Even as more states allow medical marijuana, traveling between states with cannabis can leave patients in legal limbo.

  • Dec. 31, 2019

This fall, Sierra Riddle queued up at security at Los Angeles International Airport with a tincture bottle of THC oil — the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis — in her purse.

Ms. Riddle, 31, a nursing assistant from southern Oregon, was traveling with her son Landon, 9, and uses medical marijuana to treat his severe nerve pain from chemotherapy, as well as her own chronic pain. She was on her way to a medical conference in Dallas to talk about her son’s medical marijuana use and was “praying and meditating that we’d make it through security,” when a Transportation Security Administration agent pulled the bottle out of her bag.

“It’s just botanical oils,” Ms. Riddle said she told the officer. “But this was L.A. — they’re hip to the game and so they knew what is was.”

To Ms. Riddle’s surprise, the officer told her that, while it’s illegal to fly with marijuana and he was obliged to call the police, instead, he would just throw the bottle in the trash and wouldn’t report her.

With 33 states now allowing some form of medical marijuana, it might seem that traveling with medical marijuana should be easy enough. But there’s a difference between state governments and the federal government, and if you don’t know the rules, traveling with medical marijuana could lead to an arrest or at the very least, a complicated legal gray area.

What’s the bottom line?

In the United States, the federal government still classifies marijuana, even medical marijuana, as a Schedule I controlled substance, which means anyone transporting it across state lines is committing a federal crime and can be charged with drug trafficking. This carries a minimum penalty of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for the first offense.

Internationally, fines and punishments for marijuana possession can be much harsher, including long jail sentences or even execution for trafficking large amounts.

In the airports

The T.S.A. says it’s not interested in finding your medical marijuana.

“We’re focused on security and searching for things that are dangerous on the airplane,” said Mark Howell, a T.S.A. regional spokesman. Even though the T.S.A. is a federal agency, and it can often feel as though agents are overly zealous about checking your bags, “we’re not actively looking for marijuana or other drugs,” Mr. Howell said.

Careful: Though a recent Instagram post by the T.S.A. notes that while “T.S.A. officers DO NOT search for marijuana or other illegal drugs,” if they do find it, they are required by federal law to turn it and the owner over to local law enforcement.

In a state where medical marijuana is legal, Mr. Howell added, “you present your medical marijuana card, and the law enforcement officials will usually just give it back to you.”

You should also look up your airline’s rules and regulations: Many carriers, including Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines have created policies that ban medical marijuana (THC) from their aircraft, even if you have a medical card.

At your destination

Know the laws of the states you are traveling to or through: Even if you have a medical marijuana card, you can be arrested and charged for possession in states where medical marijuana is not legal.

Nearly 20 states accept out-of-state medical marijuana authorizations, but reciprocity laws vary from state to state.

In some states, like Arkansas, visitors are required to sign up for the medical marijuana program 30 days in advance and pay a $50 nonrefundable fee. Visitors should also keep in mind the state’s purchasing limit, which can be different for residents versus those who are there temporarily. In Oregon, for example, residents can possess up to 24 ounces, while visitors are allowed only one ounce.

On the roads and on the rails

Amtrak’s policy is strict: “The use or transportation of marijuana in any form for any purpose is prohibited, even in states or countries where recreational use is legal or permitted medically.”

Greyhound Lines bans alcohol and drugs “anywhere on the bus (including in your checked baggage).”

If you choose to drive with medical marijuana, be discrete. Many marijuana arrests begin as traffic stops, according to Americans for Safe Access, a nonprofit advocacy group. They recommend keeping cannabis locked in your trunk and never driving under the influence. You should never carry medical marijuana in a state where it’s not legal.

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What about C.B.D.?

In May, the T.S.A. updated its rules for flying with medical marijuana, allowing travelers to now carry products like Cannabidiol oil that contain less than 0.3 percent THC. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a molecule in cannabis that does not get patients high. Passengers can bring products that are approved by the F.D.A. in their checked or carry-on luggage.

Reminder: Pack your documents

Don’t forget all your official documents.

“We tell patients to bring their doctor recommendation with them, just in case law enforcement stops them,” said Debbie Churgai, the interim director of Americans for Safe Access.

“We also tell them to keep their medical recommendation and their medical I.D. card with them, and know their physician’s number and maybe their lawyer’s number — just in case.”

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Even as more states allow medical marijuana, traveling between states with cannabis can leave patients in legal limbo.

A Guide to Traveling with Medical Marijuana

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Currently, medical marijuana is legal in more than half of the United States, but legal recreational marijuana is OK in just a fraction. A common question for those who partake is, “Can I travel with my marijuana?”

The short, safe answer if you’re traveling within the United States, is no. And the firm answer if you’re traveling abroad is, no, never.

The federal government still criminalizes marijuana use in the United States. Any amount, for a first-time offender, is a federal misdemeanor with penalties ranging from six months to a year in jail, a $1,000 fine or a combination of jail and fines. Second or subsequent offenses, sale and cultivation increase those penalties significantly. State governments may only regulate laws within their borders, so crossing into federal lands (think: national parks), or taking a federal mode of transport will subject you to federal laws.

Air Travel in the US

According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website, marijuana, medical or otherwise, is not permitted. Bold letters remind inquisitive fliers: TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other drugs. Air travel in the US is regulated by federal agencies, the Department of Transportation (DOT), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the TSA. You are subject to federal laws.

Typically, air passengers are screened for safety concerns. In the event that the TSA suspects criminal activity, the official will most often refer the matter to a local state law enforcement officer. If you’re held up for marijuana at an airport, it has been the practice of most locations to allow the state to prosecute the possession in accordance with its laws, rather than refer it to the fed.

If you’re traveling between states that have legalized marijuana, it is still important to check the practices of the airport. Some airports will check your boarding passes to ensure you’re legal on both ends of your trip, others may make you toss your stash, like a full bottle of water, before passing through security. There are likely amount restrictions in all locations and it’s advisable that you travel with a copy of your med-marijuana carrying card, a letter from your provider or any other documentation from your state regarding your recommended use.

Remember that, although legally purchased pot may go undetected by these agencies on occasion, the rule is that it is not permitted. If you are subjected to additional search, municipal, county or state law enforcement will use their discretion to charge you criminally.

Always check your luggage, carry-ons and clothing pockets to avoid an inadvertent situation, as the excuse of, “I didn’t know” is rarely acceptable to law enforcement in these scenarios. Check your local state laws and the laws of any state you wish to travel to with your marijuana. It is safe to call an airport before you travel if you’re unsure.

Vehicle Travel in the US

If you’re taking a road trip, the same rules apply. Know your state and don’t leave the border to a non-marijuana state if you’re carrying. Also, check your trip: If you pass through a state where marijuana possession is illegal, you will be in violation of that state’s laws as you pass through and would be subject to their criminal laws if you were stopped and cited.

Be advised that all 50 states have DUI/DWI laws. Marijuana is an intoxicating substance, (as are several prescription medications) and if you’re driving, it may impair your ability to do so safely. The amount of marijuana in a person’s system sufficient for a driving-under-the-influence charge is surprisingly low, so know your laws before you get behind the wheel.

Finally, it is important to note there are several parts of the country that are federal sovereigns governed only by federal law. These areas include Washington, DC and all the national parks and reservations. Regardless of your home state or reason for holding marijuana, you can — and likely will — be charged criminally for possession of a controlled substance.

If you are cited for marijuana possession, you should contact an attorney to discuss your particular situation and determine a course of action to resolve your issue. Never travel internationally with a controlled substance — even if you carry a prescription. Getting locked up abroad is a surefire way to ruin a good time.

Alexander Bachuwa is a New York attorney who focuses on consumer and international dispute resolution. For more information, visit the Bachuwa Law website or The Points Of Life, his travel blog.

Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

A common question for those who partake is “Can I travel with my marijuana?” Here are some answers from an attorney.