Los Angeles International Airport has installed signs at security checkpoints threatening passengers with arrest and federal charges if they are in possession of marijuana.

Recreational cannabis has been legal in California since 2016 but it remains federally prohibited and since US airspace is governed under federal law this means flying with marijuana isn’t allowed, even between two states where possession is permitted.

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

Despite the strongly-worded warnings at LAX though, the risk of arrest and federal charges for marijuana possession at a California airport is extremely low. This is because Transport Security Administration (TSA) agents who work at airport security checkpoints are not law enforcement. TSA agents can call the police if they find someone carrying cannabis but it will be local officers who will respond and they only have the authority to enforce state law. And if low-level marijuana possession is legal in the state, there’s not a great deal the police can do.

As such, very few airline passengers have had problems traveling with marijuana at LAX though it’s more than likely that millions have done so.

So why are the authorities at LAX taking a stand against marijuana possession now? It’s especially puzzling given the airport’s cannabis policy hasn’t changed since 2018, when they were updated to reflect changes in California state law allowing for cannabis possession.

LAX police Chief Cecil Rhambo said the signs were installed in response to “a rise in contraband at the TSA screening stations”, but did not provide any data to back up this assertion.

Defense attorneys specialized in cannabis law claim the signs are little more than empty threats designed to scare passengers into self-policing, as the chances of federal law officers taking up low-level cannabis possession cases in a state where it is legal are highly unlikely.

“I don’t think the feds are going to get involved in little, itty bitty marijuana cases,” said William Kroger, an LA-based criminal defense attorney who’s worked with many clients caught trying to smuggle small amounts of marijuana through airports such as LAX. “They [the feds] are not even getting involved in dispensaries,” he added.

This will remain the case in states where marijuana is legal unless there is a monumental shift in the federal government’s approach to cannabis law enforcement. And that would prove to be so unpopular among a public that supports marijuana legalization with a strong majority that it hardly bears thinking about.

So, don’t let the scare signs at airports in legal states put you off, and just make sure you stay within your state’s marijuana possession limits.

About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

One Comment

  1. Brian P. Halloran Esq November 18, 2021 at 11:40 am - Reply

    I recently represented several passengers who flew LAX to CVG (Cincinnati, which is in KY:), who had been given gift bags of marijuana on their way home. Placed in checked luggage. Got to CVG, 1 dog sniff, two federal agencies, multiple search warrants, 5 electronic devices seized and searched, and 3 arrests later, they were in my office to deal with it. We got it resolved, the warrants quashed, the devices returned, and the cases diverted, but it was a multi-thousand dollar event and massive headache. Just be aware of the laws where you are going, as well as the laws where you have been. CVG is on a tear looking for dealers, ID traffickers and the like and will use any excuse to detain and search you and your devices.

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