Whether O’Hare International Airport in Chicago is “the world’s busiest” terminal for airline traffic depends on how you gauge such superlatives. If it’s by number of passengers, the busiest airport is Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta; if it’s by the sheer number of airplanes taking off and landing, the United Airlines hub in Chicago remains “busier” than anywhere else on the globe.
Either way, as of Jan. 1, O’Hare is the busiest airport in the world to be newly located in a state where recreational cannabis is legal. And indeed, with recreational cannabis sales beginning in Illinois earlier this month, six out of the 10 busiest airports in the United States are now situated in states where passengers can legally load up at the nearest dispensary on their way to or from the airport — which means that airline traffic in the U.S. is even more loaded with weed than it was before, and there’s not much of anything anyone can do about it.
You may hear that boarding an aircraft while carrying cannabis is illegal in the United States. That is true — federal law governs the friendly skies over all 50 states, and federal law, quite famously, thinks cannabis is a highly addictive substance with no medical value — but practically speaking, it’s never been safer to fly with weed. (Legal disclaimer: This blog post is not legal advice and nobody should do anything we suggest, ever.) Complicating matters somewhat are the special legal jurisdictions that exist at airports — in both Las Vegas and in Denver, the airports have declared that state law does not apply and that cannabis is still illegal — but both the demand and the effort to enforce such laws are slim to none.
There are those who would have you believe that boarding a flight bearing cannabis in 2020 means blundering into a confounding arena, a maze of contradictions. This is not the case. The legal landscape is absurdly simple: Cannabis is legal if the local jurisdiction says it’s legal. The federal Transportation Security Administration has gone as far as to publicly announce that they are not there to check for drugs. But if agents do find cannabis, their only course of action is to alert the local authorities. Unless you are some kind of special breed of a damn fool and try to waltz through Customs with weed, all the local authorities will be able to do is enforce local law. (Under no circumstances should anyone who is not a U.S. citizen be so foolish; risks for non-citizens entering the U.S. with cannabis include seizures, fines, deportation, and a lifetime ban on entering the country.)
It’s true that in Las Vegas, for example, possession of an ounce or more of weed is a felony. But, as an airport spokeswoman allowed to Forbes last year, Vegas “is a leisure market and a destination market. We understand that people come here to have a good time, so our law enforcement and our community as a whole value that.” This attitude is prevalent, and this is how you explain O’Hare’s recent decision to kindly and politely ask the public to please enforce themselves, and throw away whatever weed they have on them before boarding their flight.
Illinois legalized recreational marijuana in 2020 and suddenly TSA offered “cannabis amnesty” boxes at O’Hare. Probably saved a few panicked travelers some hassle. pic.twitter.com/YfJsCoNsHq
— Mark (@TheMarkSteffen) January 5, 2020
Truthfully, nobody — not even the hardest-headed drug-warrior cop — cares that much about a small amount of weed (except insofar as that weed is an expedient excuse to justify a stop, or further policing). No, cops care about big loads of weed, or, better yet, enormous stacks of cash that may (or may not, who cares) be used to buy big loads of weed. As the Los Angeles Times reported last year, cannabis “trafficking” arrests at Los Angeles International Airport, No. 2 on the busiest airports list and thus the busiest in the US where weed is legal, spiked 166% to 101 busts in 2018. One typical bust, the newspaper wrote, was an East Coast-bound passenger with 70 pounds of cannabis in vacuum-sealed packages stashed in his checked baggage.
Keep in mind that in all of 2018, there were only 503 reports of cannabis found in bags at LAX — and that year, the airport saw 87.5 million passengers trudge through its gates. Stashing weed in luggage “is normal procedure… and I would say 29 out of 30 times they make it through without a problem,” defense attorney Bill Kroger Jr. told the Times. The deduction here is obvious: legalization has made airports, and American passenger airlines, de-facto weed delivery systems.
So far, O’Hare hasn’t made itself a special exemption zone for legalization, and Chicago police have said publicly they won’t arrest anyone who’s following state law. (That’s nice of them!) You can almost certainly pack the legal limit and fly with confidence — knowing there are at least a few other people on your same flight doing the exact same thing, if not pushing things to the 50-pound carry-on limit.
TELL US, have you ever flown with cannabis?