With cannabis still federally illegal and some states without medical or recreational programs, traveling with your medication can be legally dicey.
Most people who travel do not jump in a car and drive to some random destination. They do not go to the airport and look at the departures board and decide on a whim to go to London or Louisville.
There is at least some level of planning involved. Hotel reservations, plane reservations and the best route are just some of the factors that go into preparing to travel. And if you are a medical cannabis patient, there is another layer of complications.
Medical cannabis licenses grant a patient the ability to purchase, possess and use cannabis products in Oklahoma, but when they travel outside the state, that is when things begin to get a little cloudy.
About 2.7 million people board a flight at a U.S. airport each day, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration. Odds are that at least some of them hold medical cannabis licenses in their state. And more than likely, some of them transported some form of cannabis with them.
But they’re not supposed to. Some domestic airports ban the use and possession of cannabis products on their premises. And there is also a broad spectrum of municipal laws on cannabis possession.
And then there is Transportation Security Administration (TSA). That agency spawned from 9/11 is tasked with making sure American air travel is secure.
TSA’s primary job is to find weapons and explosives that might find their way onto an airliner either carried by a passenger or in their checked luggage. Drugs are a secondary concern.
That doesn’t mean the screener doesn’t see your edibles or plastic canister of flower in your rolling bag as it makes its way through the x-ray machine. It just means they are not specifically looking for it.
“TSA’s screening procedures are focused on security and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers,” TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon said. “Accordingly, our security officers don’t search for marijuana or cannabis-infused products.”
If a patient is suspected of carrying cannabis products, TSA has a protocol.
“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,” Harmon said.
In some cities, that can mean a citation or arrest, depending on municipal code. Those laws can vary widely. And CBD for your tendonitis? Yeah, that’s not allowed either — mostly.
“Marijuana and certain cannabis-infused products, including some cannabidiol (CBD) oil, remain illegal under federal law, except for products that contain no more than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis or that are approved by the FDA,” Harmon said.
Americans For Safe Access, a national organization that advocates for cannabis policy reform and education, publishes a travel guide for medical cannabis patients on its website. Interim director Debbie Churgai said the confusion for some patients begins when they leave their home state.
“Reciprocity is something that would go a long way into helping to make things easier to understand for everyone.”
“If you’re flying anywhere outside of that state, even to another state that has recreational or medical marijuana, it is still technically illegal,” Churgai said. “But the reality is I don’t think most TSA agents or airport personnel are actively searching for this medication. Still, if they find it, there could be some legal consequences, depending on where the patient is. That’s all part of the confusing nature of travel with medical cannabis and why we’ve worked to educate patients on their rights and what they can and can’t do.”
In some cases, patients can go to another state with their own supply and use it. But if they’re driving, they still might wander into unfriendly territory en route to their destination — in other words, states that don’t have medical or recreational cannabis at all. Only 14 states have reciprocity provisions in their medical cannabis laws, but they vary widely.
In Oklahoma, medical patients from other states can apply for a temporary patient license that allows them to purchase cannabis in state dispensaries. It comes with a $100 fee and is good for 30 days. Other states like New Hampshire allow license holders from other states to possess cannabis in that state, but it cannot be purchased from a dispensary.
Churgai said more states adding reciprocity provisions into existing medical cannabis laws would make things easier for patients and law enforcement alike.
“There’s probably not much that can be done on the federal level right now, but the states have a role to play,” she said. “One big change would be making reciprocity where patients can travel from state to state. Reciprocity is something that would go a long way into helping to make things easier to understand for everyone.”
Oklahoma NORML state director Norma Sapp uses cannabis medicinally but doesn’t have reservations about traveling from one state to another with it if she is on the road. The skies are another matter.
“I’m not really hesitant to travel with it because I don’t ever carry much with me,” she said. “If I go to Missouri, they have medical marijuana. But I don’t think I would feel comfortable flying with it. Flying to one state where it is legal to one where it is not, there are just too many questions.”
Travel is one reason Sapp and other advocates for medical cannabis in Oklahoma don’t want patients’ names in a database that could be accessible by law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma or elsewhere. If you are in a state that doesn’t have medical cannabis and you get pulled over, it could theoretically lead to unwarranted scrutiny.
“Who wants to end up on the side of a highway in another state with a dog scratching your paint even though you have a license?” she said.
Those who have prescriptions for opioids are able to travel domestically and internationally with their medications. The inconsistency frustrates Sapp.
“You can take your prescription opioids anywhere, and these are things that can kill you,” she said. “But that’s not the way it is with cannabis. It sucks.”
Churgai said patients having access to their medication when they travel shouldn’t be an issue. If you’re paying for an expensive vacation and use cannabis to treat your migraines, not having it could ruin your trip. Likewise, business travelers suffer the same fate.
“Many rely on a certain type of medication,” she said. “That’s one reason why patients should be allowed to take the medicine they know and they’re accustomed to using when they travel out of state. Unfortunately, in a lot of situations, that’s not legal. People find that confusing. There are a lot of mixed messages as far as what’s allowed.”
For those who would rather not research cannabis laws for states and foreign countries, cannabis tourism is booming. With 11 states offering recreational marijuana and an increasing roster of cannabis-friendly destinations outside the United States, those who want to get high on vacation have more options than ever before.
Colorado pioneered cannabis tourism since legalization came to the state in 2012. About 80 million people travel there each year. Of that number, about 15 percent come for a cannabis-specific reason, according to data from Colorado Department of Tourism.
In California, travelers can enjoy tasting tours, and in Las Vegas, cannabis-themed amusement park and recreational dispensary Planet 13 opened in 2018.
April Black runs Higher Way Travel with her husband, Bobby. The California-based firm specializes in cannabis-themed travel.
“My typical customer is anyone who wants to go on vacation and use cannabis,” April Black said. “They want the whole experience. They want to be wowed and dazzled and be able to smoke.”
The age of that customer can vary. Black books tours for the younger set, including a recent birthday trip for a 21-year-old, but has also planned a cannabis-themed vacation for seniors.
“It was a group of four ladies, and I sent them down to Jamaica,” April Black said. “They had all been through various things in life. All of them were widowed. They wanted a giggly girls’ trip, and it was easy for them. All they had to do was get to the airport and look for the sign with their name on it when they got to Jamaica.”
Black said Jamaica is popular because it feels far away but is not so exotic that it is intimidating.
“It’s close to the States, so most everyone speaks English,” she said. “And they take American money. Plus it has reggae music. Even though it’s a tiny island, it has worldwide popularity because people are drawn to the music.”
Black got her start booking trips to the annual High Times Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam.
“It’s changed a lot in a relatively short period of time,” Black said. “If you’re not someone who wants to figure out a lot of details, having someone who knows the local cannabis scene wherever you go can be a big help when it comes to having a fun trip.”
Amsterdam is a standby with its array of “coffee shops” that serve up a lot of flower and very little coffee. Canada legalized cannabis for recreational use in 2018. Today, travelers can book cannabis-friendly trips from companies that have opened over the last year. Cannabis High Tours offers joint-rolling experiences along with cannabis-infused five-course meals in Canada.
Jamaica decriminalized cannabis in 2015. Medical patients can purchase it legally with an ID and proof of their medical condition at one of four dispensaries on the island or take their chances on the street. While cannabis is still technically illegal in Jamaica, it is widely available on the black market. Possession in public can result in a fine equal to roughly four U.S. dollars.
In Spain, it is a little more complicated. Tourists can get access to cannabis by joining a cannabis club, but they must have a sponsor. From there, they can enter and make what is considered a donation.
“Spain really has it going on,” Black said. “But the catch is you have to know someone who is already a member. It’s sort of like a pre-screen. We have a guy on the ground who takes people on our trips through that process, which is a lot easier than doing it on your own.”
The Pacific Northwest is also popular, Black said. From Washington to California, cannabis is legal all the way to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“You can do an entire trip driving the coast, hitting legal states all the way down,” she said. “I’ve done several trips that showcase all the cool spots and bud and breakfasts.”
Tours through Higher Way run $1,500-$3,500 and vary by destination. With more states legalizing cannabis and countries taking a fresh look at its status, cannabis tourism continues to be a sought-after experience.
“This business has grown by leaps and bounds in just a short amount of time,” Black said. “I can anticipate it only getting bigger with better and better experiences.”