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New York Airport Checkpoints Will No Longer Seize Cannabis



As New York continues to press forward following the state’s legalization of recreational cannabis, the momentous shift is also calling for other policy changes around the state. Specifically, police plan to no longer seize cannabis, make arrests or issue tickets for low-level possession for travelers passing through airports across the state.

This marks a softening of previous procedures around cannabis for the state of New York and highlights the ripple of shifts recreational cannabis is bringing to a number of states around the country undergoing the same changes. New York legalized the possession of up to three ounces of cannabis back in March.

Former State Police Colonel Bart R. Johnson, also the deferral security director of 15 Upstate airports, said cannabis is not something security officers will look for when patting down passengers or searching their luggage for contraband.

“We don’t seize it. We just look for threats—explosives, knives, guns; we don’t look for illegally possessed narcotics,” Johnson told Olean Times Herald. “When we notice something suspicious on a pat-down or something like that and then we discover that it’s marijuana … so we’re looking to see if it’s a threat. … If it turns out to be something that appears to be an illegal substance, we notify law enforcement.”

Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple’s department patrols the airport, and he said that deputies will sometimes be summoned to security when cannabis is found on a traveler or in their luggage. Though Apple says they no longer issue tickets or make arrests if the amount of cannabis appears to be less than three ounces.

Previously, Apple says his deputies and investigators made dozens of annual arrests and issued tickets for unlawful cannabis possession at the airport. Today?

“We don’t take it anymore,” he said. “It’s legal if not more than three ounces and, well, have a nice day.”

With the number of states now boasting legal cannabis, the new policy also allows for a point of comparison. Airports like Denver International Airport, in Colorado which has had legal adult-use cannabis the longest in the country, have a hard policy against cannabis at the airport, or traveling with it. The airport also does not allow cannabis-adjacent souvenirs to be sold, which has led to complaints and most recently, the question as to whether a local brewery’s 420 Extra Pale Ale can be sold in an airport taproom due to its name and branding.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), on the other hand, famously announced in 2018 they would follow state law in regard to cannabis possession, similar to New York, in that airport guests should stay aware of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening stations under federal jurisdiction, though California Peace Officers have no jurisdiction to arrest individuals if they are complying with the law.

Federal law requires the TSA in New York to notify law enforcement when they discover what appears to be an illegal substance. Cannabis is still illegal under federal law, but the TSA is also not a law enforcement agency.

The TSA has also changed their tune slightly over the years. Their website echoes the same sentiment, cannabis is illegal under federal law and the TSA is required to report any suspected violation of law to authorities.

It continues, “Accordingly, TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs, but if any illegal substance is discovered during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.”

The TSA’s social media team also nodded to the changing legislation around the country around cannabis on April 20, 2019, with an Instagram post featuring cannabis leaves and the caption, “Are we cool? We like to think we’re cool. We want you to have a pleasant experience at the airport and arrive safely at your destination. But getting caught while trying to fly with marijuana or cannabis-infused products can really harsh your mellow.”

The post continues, reiterating that TSA officers do not search for cannabis or other illegal drugs, but “in the event a substance appears to be marijuana or a cannabis infused product, we’re required by federal law to notify law enforcement. This includes items that are used for medicinal purposes.”

New York is arguably setting their own precedent, moving to ease restrictions in their airports off the bat around cannabis. Whether this shift in regulation will spread to other states making the same legislative moves, we’ll have to wait and find out.