Potted Planes Still Mean the Pokey

 - December 1, 2022, 8:35 AM

The FAA wants everyone to remember that when it comes to marijuana, the law in the air is different than the law on the ground.

It matters not that the U.S. House of Representatives voted earlier this year to decriminalize marijuana, that President Biden is pardoning convictions for federal simple pot possession, or that recreational marijuana use is legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia, decriminalized in 13 others, and up for decriminalization consideration in 14 more. Medical marijuana is legal in 33 states. When it comes to cannabis aboard an aircraft, the official mantra is “just say no,” even if there is a popular new pot strain called “Jet Fuel.”

Under federal law, marijuana is considered a Schedule 1 narcotic under the Controlled Substances Act, on par with heroin and LSD and more dangerous than Schedule 2 substances such as fentanyl and methamphetamine.

In an attempt to eliminate any confusion on the issue, in August the FAA issued a special advisory entitled “Marijuana Can’t Fly.” The FAA noted that “federal law prohibits the knowing transportation of marijuana on an aircraft” and that “pilots and aircraft owners involved in transporting marijuana face severe penalties for violating federal prohibitions.”

Specifically, federal law requires the permanent revocation of pilot certificates from those who knowingly transport controlled substances beyond simple marijuana possession and the revocation of an aircraft’s registration used for that purpose for five years. The FAA noted that it does not want “pilots or aircraft owners to face these severe penalties due to confusion between what is allowed under state law and what remains prohibited under federal law.

“If you violate the federal prohibitions, you can lose your pilot certificate and your aircraft.” And those penalties apply even if you are just a passenger who happens to hold an FAA certificate.

Adding to the confusion, the amount of pot that constitutes “simple possession” is an undefined quantity left to the determination of the courts “based on the totality of the circumstances.” And the ban also covers all forms of marijuana, including edibles.

Officially, the policies of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are “focused on security. Accordingly, TSA officers do not search for marijuana and other illegal drugs, but if any illegal substance is discovered during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.”

There have been several high-profile cases of celebrities flying with weed in recent years.

In 2008, comedian Ron White was arrested when his IAI Astra was intercepted after landing by Vero Beach, Florida police, and White was found to be holding 7/8ths of a gram of marijuana on his person. White later worked the arrest into his comedy routine, claiming that he considered 7/8ths of a gram to be “out of pot.”

But to the former flight crew he fired, White’s in-air antics were not a laughing matter. White allegedly smoked so much pot on the plane that the flight crew routinely donned oxygen masks to prevent impairment, a known side-effect of second-hand marijuana smoke. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “people exposed to secondhand marijuana smoke can experience psychoactive effects.”

Pilots donning masks also was the case aboard a chartered Gulfstream G650 in 2018 carrying former WeWork CEO Adam Neumann, according to the Wall Street Journal. After the airplane landed in Israel, the flight crew found a large brick of pot stuffed in a cereal box and reported it to the aircraft owner who recalled the aircraft. Other high-profile charter clients such as singers Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne have also become embroiled in pot-on-the-plane imbroglios.

Most of these cases involve recreational use. But increasingly, celebrity charter clients and hardcore drug traffickers are using private jets to move industrial quantities of weed and other drugs, sometimes in vintage “throw-away” models such as Learjet 35As and 55s, Hawkers, and Gulfstream IIs and IIIs.

In 2010, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) busted a smuggling ring using chartered private jets to move 860 pounds of cocaine and $4 million in cash between Los Angeles and Martin State Airport in Baltimore. The DEA’s 2019 “National Drug Threat Assessment” noted that “more and more, traffickers are utilizing private airplanes and secondary airports.”

On Dec. 8, 2019, the 21-year-old rapper Jarad Anthony Higgins, better known as “Juice WRLD,” fatally overdosed aboard a chartered Gulfstream shortly after it landed at Chicago Midway Airport. When federal agents boarded, they found 70 pounds of marijuana and three illegal handguns.   

In 2020, a Gulfstream II carrying 69 bales of cocaine was intercepted in Belize. Also that year, the Mexican military nabbed 3,300 pounds of cocaine worth $72 million from a Hawker 800. In 2021, Brazilian federal police in Fortaleza busted a Turkish-registered Gulfstream IV carrying 1.3 tons of cocaine. Also last year, Louisiana police found $750,000 worth of marijuana aboard a Learjet 55 when it stopped to refuel in Hammond. A Bombardier Challenger 600 was seized at Gary (Indiana) International Airport in November after it was linked to the transport of 220 pounds of cocaine from Mexico.

The problem of celebrities and others hauling drugs onto charter aircraft has become so pervasive that some operators and booking services feel obliged to post a policy statement on the topic on their websites. Broker Mercury Jets warns operators of the risk of aircraft confiscation and to be vigilant when it comes to customers who pay cash. “Operators should also carefully screen their customers and passengers, check luggage for weapons, and be aware of unusual flight requests.”

Via a video announcement on October 6, President Biden said, “Too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana. It’s time that we right these wrongs.”

Perhaps, but in the air the law is still different.