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Federal Charges for Flying with Cannabis? LAX’s ‘Scare Signs’ a New Low

PHOTO Alexandr Podvalny


Federal Charges for Flying with Cannabis? LAX’s ‘Scare Signs’ a New Low

Ominous warnings of arrest on a federal offense are greeting passengers who dare fly through Los Angeles with cannabis—but these are just the latest and most aggressive in a long line of empty threats.

Adult-use cannabis is legal in California and adult-use cannabis is legal in New York. But because marijuana is still banned under federal law—and since federal law governs airspace in the United States—it’s still not legal to fly from Los Angeles to New York City (or anywhere else) with cannabis, in any amount.

That hasn’t stopped untold millions of people from flying with cannabis anyway. One reason why is there just isn’t much risk. Most Transportation Security Administration agents encountered at airport security checkpoints are not law enforcement. And the law enforcement officers TSA agents summon are almost always local police or sheriff’s deputies, who enforce state law, which in California and New York (and many places in between) says small amounts of cannabis are legal.

For these reasons, there are precious few examples of small amounts of cannabis causing airline passengers (or anyone else) much trouble—as much as it might annoy police who still remember the days of plentiful, easy busts before legalization. Which is why authorities at Los Angeles International Airport are putting a new, aggressive spin on an old, crude, but effective tactic: threatening passengers carrying cannabis, this time with arrest and federal charges, in order to scare them into self-policing. But according to defense attorneys, passengers should not be fooled—this ominous warning is an empty threat.

Earlier this year, new signs appeared near security checkpoints at LAX. “ATTENTION,” the signs blare in large, uppercase letters, a large, seven-fingered marijuana fan leaf behind the red diagonal slash in a prohibition sign. “TRAVELING WITH NARCOTICS=ARREST.” 

Placed there by Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the authority in charge of both LAX and Van Nuys Airport, the signs inform any uncertain passengers that the definition of “narcotics” includes “concentrated cannabis” as well as “cannabis edibles” and “vapes” (two more discreet options often preferred by travelers for their compact portability and lack of tell-tale smell).

“Any amount of narcotics in your possession may delay your travel,” the sign reads. “Arrests may result in federal drug charges.” “‘Lack of knowledge,’” the sign adds in a paternalistic flourish, “is not a valid excuse.”

But since LAX’s marijuana policy hasn’t changed since 2018 — when authorities had to start allowing people with up to an ounce of flower and eight grams of concentrates through checkpoints and onto their flights — it appears a “lack of knowledge” is exactly what the signs appear to be banking on.

In a brief email exchange, LAX police Chief Cecil Rhambo told Cannabis Now that LAWA “installed the signs early this year when we noted a rise in contraband at the TSA screening stations.” Asked to provide data such as arrest statistics, or any example of an instance in which cannabis possession led to an arrest and federal charges at LAX, Rhambo did not respond.

But according to defense attorneys who specialize in cannabis criminal cases, there hasn’t been any recent change in policy or surge in arrests. Instead, the signs are yet another example of “scare signs,” which can and should be safely ignored.

Similar to the “amnesty boxes” seen at airports in Chicago and Denver, which invite anxious passengers to dump their cannabis in a sealed bin, the sign is a very blunt, very empty exercise in psychology, an attempt to compel the public to behave a certain way — even if, in this instance, it’s utterly baseless.

As Rhambo admitted, there is an enormous amount of cannabis flowing through Los Angeles’ airports and many other airports around the country.

“They just don’t want to deal with it.” said Omar Figueroa, a northern California-based attorney and expert in state cannabis law.

Though cannabis is legal, most law-enforcement officers are still “drug war dinosaurs” who don’t particularly like cannabis, he added. “These ‘scare signs’ make their jobs easier.”

Though technically someone stopped by federal law enforcement with cannabis — as anyone busted with pot on a beach or a forest under federal jurisdiction, like Yosemite National Park, has found out the wrong way — the idea that personal amounts would lead to federal charges is so remote as to be laughable.

“I don’t think the feds are going to get involved in little, itty bitty marijuana cases,” said William Kroger, a Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney who specializes in defending cannabis clients, including many who were caught trying to smuggle significant quantities of cannabis through airports such as LAX.

People manage to sneak through quantities in the pounds, packs, “all day, every day,” Kroger added. The idea that police would suddenly take a keen interest in individuals with personal amounts (itself a vague term that could mean ounces or pounds, depending on who is making the argument) is just not feasible, he said.

“They [the feds] are not even getting involved in dispensaries,” Kroger added.

And barring some unforeseen national shift that would prove vastly unpopular with a majority of the public who support legalization, this will not change. Unless they are also doing something else that is very, very bad, someone with a pocketful of vape cartridges, a few nugs, or some edibles tucked away in their carry-on is not going to be arrested and charged with a federal crime.

But if authorities can convince the public otherwise with something as simple, easy, and cheap as a few ominous signs propped up at airport security, that’s a job very easily done, even if it comes at the cost of their credibility.

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