The Transportation Security Administration, grappling with legalization of recreational and medical marijuana in 22 states, may decline to enforce federal marijuana laws at the airport.
Normally, if TSA agents spot drugs while screening for weapons and liquids larger than 3.4 ounces, they call local law enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Agency to deal with the contraband. Philadelphia Eaglers quarterback Michael Vick was famously stopped by TSA agents in 2007 for trying to carry pot in a secret compartment of his water bottle. Even a card-carrying medical marijuana user was barred from flying in 2001.
But TSA screeners are increasingly relaxing their response to people carrying small amounts of marijuana. As TSA is meant to focus on national security, not drugs, agents have discretion over whether or not to call the police on drug offenders. According to the New York Daily News, passengers with legal medical marijuana prescriptions say they have been allowed onto their flights, even though TSA does not officially recognize state drug laws, as a federal agency. In 2011, Denver International Airport agents allowed rapper Freddie Gibbs to keep a small bag of pot found in his luggage, simply leaving him a note saying, “C’mon son.”
TSA has been struggling with the marijuana question since last November, when Colorado and Washington legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. The agency was quickly confronted with questions asking if passengers flying between the two states could legally carry pot. TSA spokespeople explained at the time that agents do not screen specifically for drugs and suggested that marijuana would probably be tolerated, depending on the case.
In relaxing its enforcement of federal drug laws, TSA will not be all that out of step with other federal agencies that are increasingly more tolerant of marijuana use. In 2011, the National Cancer Institute became the first federal agency to rule that marijuana has medical benefits. Even the DEA’s interest in destroying marijuana plants seems to have waned in recent years. The Department of Justice also recently announced it will not challenge state legalization laws or go after marijuana distributors who are compliant with state law — although many U.S. Attorneys remain eager to target marijuana dispensaries that are in compliance with state law.