A Practical Guide to Traveling With Weed in 2018
Charting the murky green waters of semi-legalized pot
It’s 2018, and holy shit, weed is legal and as easy as buying booze in Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. That, of course, means the “good shit” is easier than ever to get your hands on.
But since it’s so good, you’ll want to take it with you wherever you’re going — on an airplane, crossing state lines, whatever. And what then? The law is super confusing on this matter. Marijuana is legal in eight states (and decriminalized in 14 more), but illegal by federal law, and viewed less permissively by some sheriffs than others. It’s complicated even for non-stoners to figure out.
To help sort through the smoke and mirrors (well, mostly smoke), I tried asking several experts and law enforcement types when and how to travel with weed in this brave new world of 2018. Here’s what they told me.
Step 1: Ask the Transportation Security Administration (y’know, the TSA)
First, I reached out to a TSA spokesperson to learn more about bringing cannabis on a plane. They responded thusly:
“TSA screening procedures are governed by federal law and designed primarily to detect threats to aviation security. TSA officers do not specifically search for illegal drugs. If an officer discovers an item that may violate the law during security screening, even in states where marijuana is legal, TSA will refer the matter to law enforcement to make a determination on how to proceed. New states laws have not changed any procedures for TSA.”
I asked a bunch of follow-up questions about specifics and hypothetical scenarios, but they declined to comment further. The basic takeaway is, unless you’re traveling with pot by the pound, searching for a few nugs in your carry-on or in your tighty-whities is kind of secondary for your average TSA agent.
On the other hand, we’ve all come across some highly unpleasant TSA agents while going through airport security, so when it comes to those guys, fly with weed at your own risk.
Step 2: Ask the Drug Enforcement Administration (aka the Feds)
Next, I talked to a DEA agent. The DEA, of course, follows federal law, so they’re pretty clear on where they stand. That said, they’re not like the secret police or anything — the DEA has neither the time nor the inclination to bother most casual users. They’re busy going after drug organizations, mainly, and have their hands full with other shit — like, say, the national opioid crisis.
Still, as the agent explained to me, sometimes smokers or other drug users allow their habits to get them into some pretty bad travel situations:
“In my own experience, users might end up owing a drug dealer money they can no longer afford. That individual now says, ‘You owe me a debt, I need you to carry this bag from point A to point B.’ Well, now all of a sudden you’ve ended up on DEA’s radar and we are quote-unquote arresting a user.”
So, uh, pay your drug dealer, I guess?
Also, if you’re thinking of shipping weed from a legal state to a non-legal state, don’t: The agent says your local prosecutor can arrest you for possession and intent to distribute, simply because you’re sending it to a state where it’s illegal.
Finally, he says to remember that your home-state laws, your medical marijuana card, etc. are all totally irrelevant if you’re found with marijuana in a state where it’s not tolerated. None of that is a credible defense wherever cannabis is illegal.
Step 3: Ask a marijuana policy expert
Vanderbilt Law School professor Robert Mikos is one of the nation’s leading federal drug policy experts, and he has lots of practical knowledge to share. First up, he claims that if you’re driving from state to state and in possession of personal quantities, you should be okay so long as you’re abiding by the laws of your destination state. States have different quantity limitations, he says (usually an ounce for personal reasons, or more for cultivating). Some cannabis-legal states have laws against importing pot from other states, so while you could technically get into trouble for importing weed for personal use, the likelihood of that happening is pretty low.
“It’s important to distinguish the supply side from the use side,” says Mikos. States are “much more restrictive when it comes to producing and distributing the drug,” he explains, than they are regarding personal use. For example, depending on state laws, producing it in one state and shipping it to another state can potentially get you into trouble in both places.
Weirdly, one place you really need to watch yourself is inside national parks. Most of our interactions with law enforcement are local police and sheriff’s deputies, but as Mikos points out, national parks are one of the few places (along with airports) that are primarily enforced by federal agents. This means a park ranger would be well within their rights to relieve you of your weed if they chose to do so.
Still, that’s probably about as bad as it’s going to get. Mikos says that as a practical matter, at the federal level, very few people go to jail for simple possession — most likely they’ll have their weed seized and destroyed. Along the lines of what the DEA agent advised, he believes the feds are mostly interested in people with an intent to manufacture and distribute.
Step 4: Ask a massive stoner
Finally, I asked a lifelong stoner — who frequently travels — how he does it. His answers were eye-opening, assuming your eyes actually open all the way:
“The first time I brought weed on a plane was when I was coming back from Jamaica with my parents. I was 12 or 13 at the time. I put it in a film can, stuffed it in my briefs, and packed it up, as if the elephant was cradling the film can with its trunk. As time went on I’d keep doing this, always in the same way, and then as I got older I learned about what the procedures were for patting down, and I figured this would be a safe way for that too, because they go in your waistband and they go over the top of your bulge, but they don’t see what your bulge is made of. For years and years that was my preferred method of carrying. One time I went to a photography store and got, like, 100 film cans, which I said were for my son’s school project. To this day they still serve me well.”
The pro tip here, though, is not just to stuff whole buds in there, as that will seriously limit how much you can carry:
“I chop it up first, then grind and pack the film canister using the bottom of the Bic. You can put a shit ton of ground-up pot in a film canister if you grind it up. Before closing it up, I always use a piece of wax paper as a barrier. I fold it down a few times and put it on the top — it seems to tamp down the smell. That process did well until they brought in the machines, which freaked me out because until then my M.O. was always keep it on you.”
Amazingly, this person has never been busted — but they’ve had a few close calls:
“I had one incident where I traveled back with hash from the Middle East — I flattened it and put it in the change purse of my wallet. The only other thing I bought over there was a prayer rug. Coming back into the U.S., as I reach the customs agent, the guy says, ‘Give me your wallet.’ I was like, ‘Fuuuuck! Who asks for your wallet?’ so he opens it up and there’s a couple of grams of hash right there, in cigarette plastic, smushed down. I immediately distracted him by saying, ‘Oh, I’m bringing back this prayer rug,’ and I showed him the rug. He said, ‘I knew you were hiding something!’ And that was that.”
As he mentioned above, however, those Total Recall-like machines they’ve started using to peek under your clothes have changed the game a bit:
“When the time came that you could no longer pack shit in your penis, after 9/11, I was pretty nervous. So finally I decided what I would do was travel with a medicine kit full of all kinds of crap. Cold pills, Band-Aids, extra Z-Pak, diarrhea pills — I put a bunch of shit in there, it’s all in a plastic bag, and it makes kind of a critical mass, into which I just shove my pot. That goes right through the scanner and nobody ever says anything about it. One thing people make the mistake of is using tinfoil. You need something that’s got stealth profile, something that doesn’t show up in a metal detector — a film canister, an empty Advil bottle. Like everything, the most obvious is the least obvious.”
By now, you may be wondering if this person has ever smoked while flying. Take a wild guess:
“Back when there were smoking sections on airplanes, I’d use a one-hitter. I’d light the hit, hold it in, switch to the cigarette, double up the hit and smoke on a plane. And when you get high at 30,000 feet, you get so fucking high. I guess it’s the altitude? Nowadays, traveling with a vape pen is so much easier — it just goes in with the pencils. Nobody says shit about that. Also, when you get where you’re going, never smoke in your hotel room until it’s already been cleaned up — maids will fuck you in some places. And when you do, you’ve gotta run the fan (turn it to ‘on,’ not ‘auto’), and when you’re ready to exhale, go over to the air conditioner, get on your knees and blow into the bottom grate that sucks in the air.”
All in all, he says, it’s best if your weed just travels one way, so if you remember nothing else, remember to be prepared to leave a good man behind:
“Normally when I travel, I don’t carry both ways. If there’s any left at the end of the trip it’s not that much, and I do a dead-homie routine. I just feel like it’s bad juju to bring it home. Plus, I have some at home anyway. Overall, when traveling to foreign countries, usually you can take anything in. It’s coming back into the United States that’s hard.”
Adam Elder is a freelance writer in San Diego. He last compiled a number of New Year’s resolutions for normal people.
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A Practical Guide to Traveling With Weed in 2018 was originally published in MEL Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.