Colorado’s largest airport has an unusually stringent policy for marijuana compared to its peers, an action prompted by the state’s legalization of the substance.
Officials and law enforcement at other major U.S. airports are less concerned, and often have more lax pot policies, than Denver International Airport. The situation showcases not only a local paradox, but an inconsistent national landscape for aviation protocol.
“It is piece-mealed. This is not right or wrong, it is just what it is. Airports were set up to be locally owned and operated, but they are federally regulated … I think we are set up over the next few years to try and figure this out,” said Jeffrey Price, an aviation security and airport operations expert at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
DIA’s recent decision to ban all marijuana possession on its property is aimed at curtailing the movement of pot from Colorado to other states, an airport spokeswoman said.
The airport now finds itself fielding questions and solidifying policies about pot, which many U.S. airport officials and police brush off.
“We have taken up a pretty strict rule right now, not because we want people to get in trouble but because we don’t want them to get in trouble wherever are they going,” said DIA spokeswoman Stacey Stegman.
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration is the only federal agency positioned nationwide to interface with air travel commerce, but its mission is to combat “terrorism and security threats to the aircraft and its passengers.” As a result, the agency defers marijuana issues to local law enforcement.
“Now instead of safety or security issues, we are throwing marijuana into the mix,” Price said.
But airports of similar size to DIA show varied approaches to marijuana regulation and confiscation.
In California where medical marijuana is legal, the San Francisco Police Department allows small amounts of pot through TSA checkpoints at the city’s largest airport if the person produces a medical card.
“For the most part, the TSA allows the county that they operate in to set the guidelines,” said Sergeant Tony Ng, San Francisco Police Department at SFO. “The way we treat it is that if they produce a medical marijuana card, we let them through security.”
When pot is discovered in a bag or on a person during the screening process in San Francisco, TSA takes a back seat to the local police. Ng said that marijuana is so de-prioritized that the police department doesn’t even track confiscation amounts.
But at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, the opposite appears true. Joe Pentangelo, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police, says his department leaves all pot issues in the hands of TSA.
“There has always been a negotiated process for who is responsible,” Price said. “If this was a Facebook relationship posting, it would say ‘It’s complicated.’ “
The Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport has its own police force that handles marijuana issues and then hands the case off to the county if it becomes a criminal investigation.
The issue is so new that none of the major U.S. airports reached by the Denver Post had a database or record of marijuana confiscation figures.
If Colorado’s legalized marijuana grows into an interstate problem, Price said the logical agency to step in would be U.S. Customs and Border Protection. As the issue matures, Price says the way forward is to look to historic examples of controlled substances.
“It is an old problem, with a new substance and new transportation system,” Price said. “When my family moved to Colorado back in the 1970s, it was illegal to take Coors beer east of the Mississippi River. We are kind of going back to that.”
Price says officials are left with a system of trial and error.
“I don’t think a lot of the people have the solutions because they don’t know what the problems will be,” Price said. “So they just move in a direction to get the information that will help refine they policies in the future.”
Kristen Leigh Painter: 303-954-1638, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/kristenpainter