The Baffling Legal Gray Zone of Marijuana at the Airport

The contradiction between federal and local laws can feel especially confusing to travelers in states where pot has been legalized

Las Vegas

In the cloudy world of travel with marijuana, what gets dispensed in Vegas should probably get smoked in Vegas.

Marijuana tourism is booming here, as it has in Colorado, Oregon and elsewhere. But what’s allowed and what’s legal at airports and hotels can feel like a confounding set of contradictions.

Possessing limited quantities of recreational marijuana is legal in Denver and Las Vegas, but it’s illegal at the airports in those cities. Not true in Los Angeles, Boston and Seattle, where possession at the airport is allowed up to certain limits.

And what may be legal locally isn’t legal federally, or in most destination states. It’s also illegal to transport marijuana across state lines, even from one state where it’s legal to another. So the federal Transportation Security Administration is in a tough spot. TSA is supposed to be looking for things that get you killed, not high.

Even advertising at the airport is tricky. The Las Vegas airport prohibits pot ads in the terminals, so dispensaries have plastered them on taxis that line up at airport doors to advertise cannabis as soon as visitors walk out.

TSA says its officers, who are administrative and can’t arrest anybody, aren’t actively engaging in joint enforcement. Screeners aren’t searching for marijuana or cannabis-infused products, TSA spokeswoman Danielle Bennett says.

There’s a big however, however. “In the event a substance that appears illegal is discovered during security screening, our officers will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer, who then follow their own procedures,” Ms. Bennett says.

One path to a bad trip: TSA X-ray scanners sometimes flag organic material, which sometimes can have the same density as explosive materials.

In states where marijuana is legal, if you’re within legal limits, you’re released. “We cannot make any arrests if they don’t violate state law,” says Perry Cooper, Sea-Tac Airport spokesman.

Some airport police agencies will confiscate your purchased weed, but others allow you to leave with it. In California, for example, if you bought it legally and are legal to possess it under California law, “airport police would not have any legal authority to prevent anyone from traveling with it,” says Rob Pedregon, spokesman for the Los Angeles Airport Police.

Recreational marijuana is now legal in 10 states, with Illinois also in the process of legalization. Some airports in legalized states say calls to investigate have gone up considerably. In Portland, Ore., for example, where recreational marijuana became legal four years ago, marijuana calls from TSA to Port of Portland police have jumped to 137 through July this year from 14 in all of 2014.

If a traveler is of legal age and has a legal amount and a boarding pass for a destination in Oregon, he or she may fly with marijuana. If the boarding pass is for out of state, the police ask passengers to get rid of the pot before flying.

“Very few recreational users seem to have an issue with the rules as they’ve been set forth,” says PDX airport spokeswoman Kama Simonds. “Most of the issues we have at the airport are with large, illegal quantities that suggests attempted illegal activity from criminal elements.”

LAX says it saw an increase in referrals from TSA and from marijuana-related arrests initially after legalization, but those numbers have dropped off as people better understand the local laws. Same in Denver.

Marijuana tourism is a big deal. The Colorado Department of Revenue says marijuana sales are up to more than $1.5 billion a year, and while the bulk of sales go to the one million users in-state, an estimated 19 million visitors to Colorado bought weed there in 2017. About 60 million people go through Denver’s airport annually.

Taking legally purchased marijuana home may be more of a temptation, since consuming it when traveling can be far more difficult than people realize.

In Las Vegas, dispensaries near the Vegas Strip report 75% to 85% of sales come from travelers, some of whom walk in straight from the airport with their luggage. But casinos prohibit all forms of marijuana, including vaping and edibles. If room cleaners find a stash, they can confiscate it. Security watching hotel lobbies sometimes stop guests with dispensary bags and seize purchases. Casinos have federal gambling licenses and don’t want federal crimes committed on their property.

Hotels typically levy heavy fines for smoking in rooms. The deep-cleaning fee at Mandalay Bay and Bellagio is $500 for a standard room. Car rental firms have similar policies, and smoking weed in cars remains illegal.

One legal way to smoke: get a smoking-allowed room on Airbnb or house with a private yard. (The high-end Cosmopolitan does have rooms with open-air balconies, though the hotel says consuming marijuana on terraces isn’t permitted.)

Smoking isn’t allowed in public in most places where it has been legalized, but walk on the Strip or downtown Vegas and you can stumble upon the unmistakable whiff of pot.

The Las Vegas airport has installed green amnesty boxes at the most heavily used entrances, and people do use them, says Chris Jones, airport chief marketing officer. On a recent day, the box at a taxi drop-off spot smelled. The airport has a contractor empty boxes under police supervision and destroy contents.

Dispensaries do deliver, but they can’t drop weed at Strip hotels, and they can’t be located on the Strip. They get as close as they can—Planet 13 opened a marijuana “superstore” in November about a 15-minute walk from the Encore at Wynn.

The company is already expanding, trying to become a tourist attraction with live entertainment acts and a restaurant. Executives also have an eye on building a lounge for consumption if that should become allowed. Visitors will be able to see marijuana processed and packaged, even marijuana chocolates being made.

Dispensaries offer child-resistant and smell-resistant bags. They also typically have warning signs about consumption restrictions and travel, and salespeople try to educate consumers.

“They are finding a way,” says Adam Laikin, chief marketing officer at Tryke, the parent of Reef Dispensaries, a dispensary chain. “It’s certainly easier than it has been for a lot of history.”

Write to Scott McCartney at middleseat@wsj.com

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