Flying with weed: What you need to know after Gigi Hadid got caught out in the Cayman Islands

Any traveller who’s availed themselves of the delights offered by America’s burgeoning legal cannabis industry will be able to sympathise with Gigi Hadid. Last month, the 28-year-old supermodel was arrested at an airport in the Cayman Islands when officials found “ganja and utensils used for the consumption of ganja” in her luggage after she disembarked her private plane.

Despite the fact the products had been purchased legally with a medical licence in New York, and the fact cannabis has been legal for medical use in Grand Cayman since 2017, Hadid was fined $1,000 before being released to continue her holiday – without her weed.

Now that cannabis is legal for recreational use in 23 US states (plus Washington DC) and for medical use in 38 states (and DC), it might be tempting for flyers to think they’re allowed to travel with weed as long as it’s legal at both ends of their journey, but this is not the case.

Being famous doesn’t make you immune to the law: Gigi Hadid was fined for carrying cannabis

(Gigi Hadid/Instagram)

Air travel in the United States is governed by federal law, which still considers cannabis a schedule-one narcotic with “no accepted medical use”. Until there’s a change in the law at the federal level, taking any amount of cannabis across state lines remains very much illegal.

If you think it’s frustrating to have to leave your trusty vape behind before boarding, spare a thought for cannabis growers. The continuing federal ban means legal farmers in different states can’t trade product, which has led to weed surpluses in certain places, such as Oregon and Washington, and scarcity in others.

However, while the law prohibiting travelling from state to state with cannabis is pretty clear-cut, enforcement does vary and, in practice, it’s unlikely the feds are going to spend too much time worrying about the THC gummies in your carry-on. The official policy at LAX in Los Angeles is that you’re perfectly fine to have up to 28.5g of cannabis in the airport – but not while trying to go through a security checkpoint.

If you’re found with weed while going through TSA anywhere in the country, it will almost certainly be confiscated, and you may be turned over to local law enforcement. They could then involve the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), especially if the amount of cannabis you’re carrying exceeds personal use or if officers find other reasons to believe you’re involved in the sale and distribution of the drug (such as carrying excessive amounts of cash). Many US airports, such as Chicago’s O’Hare International, now have cannabis amnesty boxes, where travellers can choose to discard their weed before flying.

Cannabis is legal in 23 US states

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Flying high

It should probably go without saying, but transporting cannabis purchased legally in the US back to the UK remains very much forbidden – but that doesn’t stop people trying. In January this year, British officers arrested nine American citizens who were attempting to smuggle more than 700lb of weed from LAX to Heathrow. Then, in July, a French woman flying from Philadelphia to London was stopped with 20lb of cannabis after being identified by a sniffer dog named Gini. She got off relatively lightly – while customs seized the weed, they allowed the traveller to continue to London and did not criminally charge her.

When it comes to travelling with cannabis elsewhere in the world, the risks can be much greater. Last year, professional basketball player Brittney Griner sparked an international incident when she was arrested at an airport in Russia with cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner told a Moscow court that she had been prescribed the product for medicinal reasons in Arizona and had not intended to break Russian law, explaining: “I was in a rush packing and the cartridges accidentally ended up in my bags.” Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison, although she was eventually released in December, after the United States agreed to a prisoner swap for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Facing the death penalty

Travellers in southeast Asia would also be well-advised to double check their luggage before going anywhere near a plane. Last June, Thailand removed cannabis from its list of banned narcotics – a move that led to the opening of legal dispensaries and booming sales of “weed pizzas” in the country.

However, nearby holiday hotspot Bali, in Indonesia, is far less relaxed about it. Indonesia has some of the strictest anti-drug laws in the world, with prison sentences of up to 12 years for simple possession and even the possibility of the death penalty for serious traffickers. Earlier this year, officials in Bali said they’d arrested 15 travellers – including Brits, Americans and Russians – in just two months for arriving in their country with cannabis purchased legally in Thailand.

Drugs picked up by airport security will likely be confiscated

(Getty Images)

Along with Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates are also noted for their zero-tolerance policy on drugs. Travellers to Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the other Emirates should be aware that the possession of cannabis, or any other banned narcotic, carries a mandatory minimum sentence of four years. Even having detectable amounts in your bloodstream can be considered possession. If you have enough to be considered a trafficker, you could face the death penalty.

Japan also has notoriously strict cannabis laws, which can see those caught in possession handed up to five years’ jail time even for a first offence. Famously, Paul McCartney was arrested in Tokyo in 1980 with 219g of cannabis in his luggage. After being threatened with seven years’ hard labour, the former Beatle eventually served just 10 days in prison and has credited his celebrity for the relative leniency of his punishment.

“Louis smokes marijuana?”

Perhaps McCartney should have taken a leaf out of Louis Armstrong’s book. In 1958, the jazz icon was travelling the world as a cultural ambassador for the United States. Due to his official duties, Armstrong had become accustomed to not being searched, but that changed one day when he arrived back in the US from Asia with 3lb of cannabis stuffed inside his trumpet case and was told to stand in line for customs.

Salvation arrived in an unlikely form: then-Vice President Richard Nixon was also at New York’s Idlewild Airport (now John F Kennedy Airport) that day, and was keen to get a press photo with Armstrong. When that was done, Nixon was only too happy to carry Armstrong’s bags over the border for him. Much later, when he was informed of the ruse, Nixon is said to have spluttered disbelievingly: “Louis smokes marijuana?”

That brazen tactic might have worked for Armstrong but, for those of us who aren’t travelling with a gullible politician in tow, the best legal advice is simply to remember that planes and cannabis don’t mix. If you must get high, choose one or the other.

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