Pot-Smuggling Arrests at LAX Up 166% Since Legalization

By Paul Gaita 05/15/19

Arrests at California's busiest airport rose to 101 in 2018, up from 38 in 2017. 

marijuana-sniffing drug going through luggage at LAX

The Los Angeles Times has reported that drug trafficking arrests at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) have surged 166% since the state legalized recreational marijuana in 2018.

Arrests at LAX, which is the busiest airport in the state of California, saw 101 trafficking arrests in 2018, up from 38 in 2017. Other California airports, including Oakland and Sacramento, are reporting similar increases.

But while it's legal to carry up to 28.5 grams of marijuana at LAX, travelers may run afoul of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents, who as federal employees must uphold the federal government's prohibitive stance towards marijuana.

The Sacramento Bee outlined the issue in its coverage of the Times' reporting. Per LAX policy, travelers are allowed to carry 28.5 grams of marijuana and 8 grams of concentrated marijuana for personal consumption.

The Bee quoted Los Angeles Airport Police spokesperson Alicia Hernandez who said, "We're not going to arrest you or confiscate marijuana."

However, since commercial planes fly through federal airspace, travelers must still check in with TSA agents at LAX and other California airports, and the rules that apply to airport police regarding marijuana are not the same for federal agents. "TSA can deny you coming through the checkpoint," said Hernandez. "The checkpoint is their jurisdiction."

TSA spokesperson Lorie Dankers outlined the administration's policy regarding marijuana in an email to the Bee. "TSA's screening procedures, which are governed by federal law, are focused on security and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers."

So if TSA agents find marijuana on a traveler or in their luggage, they must refer the issue to local law enforcement, even if the state or country where the airport is located—or where the traveler is heading—allows legalized marijuana. From there, law enforcement will determine "whether or not the passenger is allowed to travel with marijuana."

Hernandez again asserted that travelers stopped by TSA at LAX will face no arrests. But as the Bee noted, missing a flight due to law enforcement intervention remains a possibility.

To that end, LA City Councilman Mitch Englander has suggested the implementation of "amnesty boxes," where travelers can deposit marijuana before entering a TSA checkpoint. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada has 20 such boxes available for travelers. 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.