With the passage of Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act, in 1996, and Proposition 64, known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, in 2016, the use and possession of marijuana became legal in California. Yet this doesn't mean that people can always travel freely with marijuana, even within California. This is because marijuana, whether for medical or recreational purposes, is still illegal under federal law.
Federal Law on Marijuana
The U.S. Controlled Substances Act lists marijuana as an illegal controlled substance. Not only is marijuana considered a controlled substance, it is classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning that the federal government considers it a substance that has a high potential for abuse and has no currently accepted medical use. The government groups marijuana with other drugs such as heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, commonly known as ecstasy.
Under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act, possession of marijuana of any amount is a misdemeanor crime. For a first conviction, it is punishable by up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000. A second conviction is punishable by up to two years in jail, with a minimum 15-day sentence and a maximum fine of $2,500. A third or more conviction is punishable by up to three years in prison, with a minimum 90-day sentence and a maximum fine of $5,000.
Both the sale and cultivation of marijuana are felony crimes and carry heavier penalties. For the sale of less than 50 kilograms and cultivation of less than 50 plants, the penalty is up to five years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $5,000. The penalty increases in severity with the more marijuana involved, going all the way to life imprisonment and a maximum fine of $1 million if caught selling 1,000 kilograms or more and cultivating 1.000 plants or more.
Travel Security Administration Rule on Marijuana
Whether passengers can legally bring marijuana on a plane doesn't have a clear answer. The Travel Security Administration (TSA) states that medical marijuana is allowed in both carry-on and checked bags. The allowance, however, comes with a caveat. The TSA states that since its screening procedures are focused on aviation and passenger security, TSA security officers do not specifically search luggage for marijuana or any other drugs.
Yet the TSA also points out that since marijuana remains illegal under federal law, TSA officers are required to report to a law enforcement officer if marijuana is found during a security screening.
According to California NORML, a non-profit state organization that advocates for the reformation of California's marijuana laws, TSA security personnel at some airports in California, such as Los Angeles International Airport and Oakland International Airport, are more "respectful" of travelers who have medical marijuana than the personnel at other airports, such as Hollywood Burbank Airport.
Traveling Within California With Marijuana
Since California has legalized medical marijuana, California NORML advises that patients and their caregivers who are traveling within California should have with them their medical marijuana identification cards to show to local law enforcement if need be. While there is no guarantee about what local law enforcement will do, California NORML points out that in this situation, local law enforcement will usually follow state, not federal, law.
Read More: Recreational Marijuana in California: Growing & Using Regulations
Crossing State Lines with Marijuana
While it may be possible to travel within California with marijuana without legal consequence, it is not legal to transport marijuana across state lines. Since crossing state lines is interstate commerce, it falls under federal jurisdiction.
As marijuana is illegal under federal law, crossing state lines, even if it is to another state that has legalized marijuana, carries the risk of federal prosecution. This is true whether crossing state lines by air or by car. Local law enforcement personnel who find marijuana on travelers who are crossing borders may refer the matter to federal law enforcement.
Marijuana on Federal Lands
As marijuana is illegal under federal law, and federal law supersedes state law, travelers with marijuana who are on federal forest or parklands may face federal prosecution. Campers who camp on federal forest or parkland, whether they have stayed within California or have traveled to a campsite in another state, may be searched, charged under federal law and have their marijuana confiscated. The same risk applies to travelers who are simply driving through federal land.
Crossing state lines with marijuana is illegal, even if it is to another state that has legalized marijuana use.
- California Norml: Patients' Guide to Medical Marijuana Law in California
- Transportation Security Administration: Medical Marijuana
- Los Angeles Times: Federal law? State law? Which takes precedence when you want to travel with cannabis?
- United States Drug Enforcement Administration: Drug Scheduling
- Norml: Federal Laws and Penalties
- California Norml: Frequently Asked Questions
Karen graduated from Southwestern Law School in 2003 with a Juris Doctor degree. She has worked for several law firms, providing legal services in various fields including immigration, housing, bankruptcy and family law.