Federal Law Leaves Marijuana In A No-Fly Zone

Photo Credit: Regina Garcia Cano

There’s still a lot of confusion around legal weed. Though banned federally, each state, and even county, decides what kind of weed is allowed, and users don’t always know what those lines are. One of the spaces that catches people by surprise? Airports. Commercial flights work under federal law, and boarding them requires passing inspection by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), another federal operation.

Because airports are the boundary between local and national rule, staff and security have to negotiate the transition with pot-carrying passengers leaving weed-legal towns. For some, the solution has been amnesty boxes. These bright-green mini mailboxes at airports let passengers anonymously deposit weed or any illegal substances. The contents are regularly emptied by police or private contractors and destroyed. As a last-minute opportunity to dodge a felony, the boxes have probably saved some people from citations, fines, and jail time, but they do the airports some favors, too.

The bins work like mailboxes: Once something goes in, it can’t come out.

When Colorado Springs Airport put in amnesty boxes in 2014, they were tired of weed being trashed, flushed, and buried on their property, said Aidan Ryan, the airport’s marketing and communications manager. Marijuana had been legalized in the state two years earlier, and weed tourists were showing up to the airport and finding out that it’s a federal crime to carry their purchases onto planes, even if the flight departs from and arrives in weed-legal places. Also, TSA must report any amount or derivative of weed to airport security if they see it during screening. To alert passengers and facilitate compliance with the law, the airport became the first to install the lime green boxes. The bins work like mailboxes: Once something goes in, it can’t come out. Colorado Springs Airport Police empty the boxes once a month, and they almost always have something in them, Ryan says.

Passengers at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas have also found the drop-offs helpful. McCarran drilled the bins into the pavement in February of 2018, 13 months after weed was legalized in Nevada. The airport’s citation rate for illegal possession hasn’t changed since installation, according to Christine Crews, McCarran’s public information officer, but all 13 boxes have something in them when cleaned out twice a week by a private contractor. Since each drop-off is anonymous, passengers use them to abandon other products, too. The contractor has found prescription medication, said Crews, who has also heard of street drugs turning up in the boxes.

Photo Credit: Regina Garcia Cano

While the containers help people avoid uncomfortable encounters with security, they also protect the airport’s public image. When marijuana became legal in Nevada, the Las Vegas county that regulates McCarran Airport passed an ordinance stating that weed wouldn’t be allowed on airport grounds. Though operated by local government, the facility works with TSA, the Department of Homeland Security, the FAA, and other federal programs. The airport figured that if everyone on the property took the same stance on weed, misunderstandings between agencies could be avoided. “Our airport is so integral to the economy of Nevada, we don’t have any time for hiccups,” said Crews. At the same time, the airport would rather not charge people for unlawful possession. Crews explains, “We are a leisure destination, and we want people to come and go from Las Vegas…why would we want them to leave here with a bad impression?” The boxes allow McCarran to cooperate with the feds without confronting customers.

Over at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), amnesty boxes sound appealing because of how much time they’d save the police. “We still have a lot of marijuana coming through our airports,” says Marshall McClain, the president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association. Since weed was legalized in the state, people have been assuming local rules still apply and are bringing more pot to the conveyor belts, says McClain. Every confiscation requires an officer to drive it to the station and fill out paperwork—a two or three-hour process. A bi-weekly emptying of an amnesty box sounds easier, and McClain’s department has been looking into installing them ever since Los Angeles councilman Mitchell Englander suggested the idea a few weeks ago.

So the boxes are efficient, attention-grabbing, and anonymous. But what if you don’t use them? Even at TSA screening, McCarran prefers minimal confrontation. If passengers get to security with weed still on them, police offer one last chance to drop the product in the boxes, says Crews. Officers only hand down a citation if the customer refuses to leave the weed behind—though the offer doesn’t extend to illegal quantities of weed (an ounce or more) or any other drugs. At LAX, McClain plans to take a stricter approach. If your pot ends up on security’s conveyor belt, it means you walked by the posters and amnesty boxes explaining the situation, and you’ll be cited or fined by his officers. When asked how Colorado Springs handles passengers entering security check with weed, Rhine says she can’t speak on behalf of TSA, but that “anytime you go through TSA, you’re at risk of violating federal law.”

Not all airports bother with the boxes. Denver International Airport says every single passenger told about the law has willingly thrown away their pot or returned it to their car, so they don’t feel the need to install drop-off points. At Portland International Airport, staff have negotiated an exception to the law with the TSA based there. Passengers can keep their weed so long as they’re at least 21, carrying a legal amount and flying within Oregon. If their flight goes outside the state, however, the customer is told to put the weed back in their car or give it to the family member who dropped them off. The airport has no interest in dealing with collection or destruction, writes Kama Simons, their media relations manager, via email.

Trusting someone to return pot to their car doesn’t seem as foolproof as having designated security boxes, but the Colorado Springs airport is working out some kinks of its own. Rhine says passengers are still leaving pot in other places, possibly because they think the boxes have surveillance cameras on them. And though LAX hasn’t even installed the boxes yet, McClain has already received some pushback from pro and anti-legal weed advocates. Both think the boxes skirt the law in some way, when in reality, they’re just meant to show where one regulation ends and another begins.

“We’re not even going to have this conversation [about whether or not pot should be legal],” says McClain. “We’re just trying to deal with the situation we have now.”