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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.

Traveling with Medical Marijuana? What the TSA Wants You to Know

Traveling in the United States with medical marijuana means navigating the rough waters of many legal gray zones.

Medical marijuana was supposed to make life easier for people with chronic pain, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, glaucoma, and other conditions.

And it has, as long as you live in a state where medical marijuana is legal… and you stay there.

But if you decide to leave your state — or the United States — you could end up facing a dizzying array of legal consequences.

These range from being asked to dump your weed at the airport, to having to deal with local law enforcement, to getting a prison sentence (in certain countries with a hardline stance against marijuana).

For Charlotte Caldwell, a 50-year-old woman from Castlederg, Northern Ireland, it also meant losing the six-month supply of cannabis oil she had picked up in Toronto to treat her son’s severe epilepsy.

Medical marijuana is illegal in the United Kingdom, except for one cannabis-based product.

When Caldwell declared the cannabis oil to border officials at Heathrow Airport in London, they confiscated the supply, reports The Telegraph.

After outcry over this and similar cases, the British government announced this week that it would take steps to lift its ban on cannabis-based medicines, according to the AP News.

But for Americans, traveling with medical marijuana, either on an international or a domestic trip, can still be tricky.

Twenty-nine U.S. states have medical marijuana laws, reports the Marijuana Policy Project.

That means there are 21 states where you aren’t legally allowed to use marijuana, even with a prescription from a doctor.

Complicating matters, marijuana is illegal under federal law. It’s classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which puts it in the same category as heroin and “bath salts.”

Donna Shields, a registered dietitian and co-founder of the Holistic Cannabis Academy, said that any time you travel outside your state with marijuana — whether it’s by plane, train, or bicycle — you’re transporting a federally restricted substance across state lines.

This leaves you “vulnerable.”

“People sometimes think transporting marijuana from one legalized state to another — California to Washington, for example — makes it OK, but it’s not,” said Shields. “It’s the act of crossing the border that makes it illegal. Plain and simple.”

Because of the disconnect between federal and state marijuana laws, trying to board a plane in the United States while carrying medical marijuana puts you in a legal gray zone.

Some airports in states that have legalized recreational marijuana don’t have policies prohibiting marijuana on the premises, reports The Boston Globe. This includes Logan International Airport in Boston and LAX in Los Angeles.

But Denver International Airport in weed-friendly Colorado forbids having marijuana on airport property.

When you reach the security checkpoints, though, you’re entering federal territory.

The Transportation Security Administration’s screening procedures are governed by federal law. The TSA lists medical marijuana as a prohibited item. This includes cannabis-infused products, such as cannabidiol (CBD) oil.

Some airports in states that have legalized recreational marijuana have “amnesty boxes” where travelers can ditch their weed before passing through security.

Although marijuana is illegal under federal law, TSA’s focus is on identifying terrorism and security threats to aircraft and passengers, said spokesperson Lorie Dankers.

But if screeners find marijuana on a traveler or in their luggage, they will handle it the same as other illegal items.

“As has always been the case, if during the security screening process a TSA officer discovers an item that may violate the law, TSA refers the matter to law enforcement,” said Dankers.

TSA’s response is the same in every state and at every airport. It also doesn’t differentiate between recreational and medical marijuana.

Traveling in the United States with medical marijuana means navigating the rough waters of many legal gray zones.