Can I Fly With Marijuana? Since Legalization, California's LAX Reports 166 Percent Increase in Arrests

Los Angeles International Airport has seen arrests surge 166 percent since marijuana was legalized across the state of California in 2016.

Authorities at LAX say airline passengers carrying small amounts of marijuana have been emboldened by reduced marijuana possession penalties, but that drug traffickers stuffing entire checked bags with pot have also been apprehended in much larger numbers.

More smugglers are hopping onto flights out of California to escape the state's saturated weed market, police and defense lawyers told The Los Angeles Times. California legalized the use, production and sales of recreational marijuana with the passing of 2016's Prop 64, which went into effect January 1, 2018.

But regardless of California's state laws on marijuana, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the federal government — which still views marijuana as an illegal Schedule 1 narcotic alongside heroin, cocaine and LSD — prohibits interstate travel with marijuana. The California Bureau of Cannabis Control, a state agency, dodged a fight with the DEA and other federal authorities and prohibited the export of marijuana to other states.

However, the Los Angeles Police Department allows LAX passengers with small amounts of marijuana to pass through security -- but not smoke -- at the airport. And authorities caution that passengers face arrest or charges at their destination should they be headed toward any state where marijuana is not legal.

LAX, the world's fourth-busiest airport, is quickly becoming a marijuana hub alongside California's other major airports for passengers with small amounts of pot for personal use they perhaps "forgot" as well as those carrying several pounds of vaccuum-sealed marijuana packages.

"We intercept large quantities of marijuana regularly," said Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, which has jurisdiction over Oakland International Airport, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. "We find it in about 50-pound quantities… the carry-on rate for luggage. I would imagine we're only intercepting some of it, not all of it."

California is the top marijuana-producing state in the country, pushing out 13.5 million pounds of marijuana in 2016, which is about five times more than state residents consumed. The massive surplus has driven — or in this case, flown — people out of the state for business and consumers in states where stricter marijuana policies are enforced. Additionally, authorities say hundreds of passengers who forget that federal authorities have dominion over the country's skies are increasingly being apprehended with small pouches and viles containing marijuana in both their carry-on or checked bags.

LAX arrest records showed the most popular flight destinations for pot smugglers were Chicago, Indianapolis, Atlanta and Dallas. In 2018, which was the first year for legalized recreational pot use in California, LAX police made 101 trafficking arrests. In 2017, there were only 38 arrests and in 2016 there were only twenty.

thanksgiving 2018 travel tsa
Travelers wait in line to go through the security area at Reagan National Airport on November 21, 2017, in Arlington, Virginia. TSA expects travel during the 2018 Thanksgiving holiday to be one of the top 10 busiest days on record. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

"Since pot's been legalized in California, there's no money to be made because everyone got involved in it," said Bill Kroger Jr., a veteran criminal defense lawyer who specializes in marijuana cases. "They've got these big 50,000-square-foot [grow] houses, and they're flooding the market. The money is outside of California."

"This is normal procedure for these guys, and I would say 29 out of 30 times they make it through without a problem," he added.

California state officials have squabbled with federal authorities in the past few years, as marijuana remains a Schedule 1 narcotic according to the federal government and Drug Enforcement Agency. Last Wednesday, the attorneys general of 38 states and territories sent a letter to Congress urging them to allow residents to store money generated from cannabis and marijuana businesses into banks.

"This is simple: Not incorporating an $8.3 billion industry into our banking system is hurting our public safety and economy," California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who signed the letter, said in a statement. "The SAFE Banking Act would reward taxpayers and small and local licensed businesses who play by the rules. We urge Congress to pass legislation to meet the demands of our growing economy."