Transportation Security Administration officials seemed dazed and confused this week on the agency's stance on flying with medical marijuana.
More than half of the states now have medical or recreational marijuana laws, though marijuana remains illegal under federal law. But the TSA softened its stance on taking cannabis on airplanes a couple of years ago, telling the public that it wasn't looking for the plant or other illegal drugs.
On Tuesday, cannabis activist Tom Angell published an article on Massroots.com about a change on TSA's website that seemed to indicate a substantial change in federal pot policy.
Instead of "prohibited items," TSA published a new section on its website on Tuesday called "What Can I Bring," Angell wrote.
On the page, the agency noted "yes" to bringing medical marijuana in carry-on luggage and checked bags.
Angell called the change "TSA’s clearest indication yet that you can carry cannabis on flights."
The blurb repeated the same caveat that the TSA published more than two years ago:
"TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other drugs. In the event a substance that appears to be marijuana is observed during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.
"Whether or not marijuana is considered legal under local law is not relevant to TSA screening because TSA is governed by federal law. Federal law provides no basis to treat medical marijuana any differently than non-medical marijuana."
But as media reports of the change spread on Wednesday, TSA officials had second thoughts.
Leafly.com reported that TSA deleted the reference to medical marijuana just minutes after one of its reporters called to inquire about the change.
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A little while later, the medical marijuana reference reappeared on its website — this time, with "no" repeated twice in red for carry-on luggage and checked baggage.
"There was an error in the database of the ‘What can I bring?’ tool that is now corrected,” TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers told Leafly. “The information that I provided to you earlier is correct. And do note, the TSA website had been corrected as well."
However, the TSA still gives the same lines about not searching for marijuana, so the agency's actual position on medical marijuana doesn't seem to have changed. For people in Arizona with a valid medical-marijuana card, that means no bust even if TSA summons local law enforcement.
Technically, local police should not seize marijuana from someone who possesses it legally under state law. That raises the question of what TSA would do if local police do nothing about the marijuana, and the passenger puts it back in the carry-on luggage. New Times reached out to Dankers on that question, but she hasn't called back yet — we'll update this story if she does.
In the meantime, when attempting to fly with a personal amount of cannabis, the best option for Arizona patients is probably a good dose of discretion.
UPDATE April 6: Dankers, a TSA spokeswoman who is definitely not dazed and confused, later got back to New Times with a response to our question.
The short answer: If TSA finds some medical marijuana in your carry-on bag and your bona fides as a patient are valid, TSA will let local law enforcement make the call on whether you can fly with the substance.
Here's Dankers entire response:
"It is important for me to note that TSA’s response to the discovery of marijuana is the same in every state and at every airport – regardless of whether marijuana has been legalized.
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"TSA’s focus is on terrorism and security threats to the aircraft and its passengers. 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.
"As has always been the case, if during the security screening process a TSA officer discovers an item that may violate the law, TSA refers the matter to law enforcement. Law enforcement officials will determine whether to initiate a criminal investigation or what steps – if any – will be taken. If the law enforcement agency decides to take no action, the traveler is allowed to proceed with the item in question.
· Marijuana remains an illegal substance under federal law.
· The passenger’s origin and destination airports are not taken into account. Airport law enforcement will always be notified if marijuana is discovered by a TSA officer during the security screening process of carry-on and checked baggage.
· Whether or not the passenger is allowed to travel with marijuana is up to law enforcement’s discretion.
"Earlier today there were stories that suggested TSA had changed its policies related to traveling with marijuana. That is not correct. There was an error in the database of a new TSA web search tool. The error has now been corrected."