Oakland International Airport may be the nation's only airport with a specific policy letting users of medical marijuana travel with the drug.
The policy is spelled out in a three-page document quietly enacted last year by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office. It states that if deputies determine someone is a qualified patient or primary caregiver as defined by California law and has eight ounces or less of the drug, he or she can keep it and board the plane.
Deputies warn the pot-carrying passengers that they may be committing a felony upon arrival when they set foot in a jurisdiction where medical marijuana is not recognized. But they say they don't call ahead to alert authorities on the other end.
"We never have. We're certainly within our right to, but we never have," said Sgt. J.D. Nelson, a spokesman for the sheriff's office. "Our notification of the passengers is for their own safety and well-being."
California voters approved medical marijuana use in 1996, while federal law still bans all possession and use.
But Oakland attorney Robert Raich notes the Code of Federal Regulations says a prohibition on operating a civil aircraft with knowledge that there is marijuana aboard doesn't apply to carrying marijuana that's "authorized by or under any Federal or State statute."
The federal Transportation Security Administration does the screening and when marijuana — or any suspected contraband — is found, the sheriff's deputies are summoned.
Oakland's airport policy was enacted in February 2008, but Raich said he didn't want to publicize it until recently lest the Bush administration change federal regulations, or lest it become an issue in Obama administration drug officials' confirmation hearings.
"All other airports in medical cannabis states should have similar policies but they don't," he said, adding that he hears San Francisco International and Los Angeles International airports are relatively kind to medical marijuana users while airports in Burbank, Ontario and San Diego are not.
Raich, who has seen two of his medical marijuana cases argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and has taught Oakland Police cadets about medical marijuana issues, said medical marijuana users generally didn't have much trouble when Oakland Police used to patrol inside the airport terminals. But that changed when the Alameda County Sheriff's Office took over in mid-2007. That summer TSA screeners referred to deputies a traveling medical-marijuana user from Washington state.
"The sheriff's deputies so harassed this person, it was heart-wrenching," Raich said. "They took his medicine, they broke his bong, they took his edibles. They were threatening him."
Raich said he found that the sheriff's office was unwilling to change its policy. So he consulted various officials including those at the Port of Oakland, which owns and operates the airport.
"I felt like a ball in a pinball machine," he said. "I felt like I'd talked to every single employee at the port and they all seemed sympathetic but they all told me the same thing: 'That's not our policy "... that's the sheriff doing that on his own.' "
Raich eventually went to the Alameda County counsel's office.
That office "finally told (Sheriff Greg Ahern) he had to comply with California law whether he liked it or not, and only then did he adopt a policy," Raich said.
"Greg Ahern is out of touch with the people of California who voted for Prop. 215 and medical cannabis in 1996 and have continued to support it by wide margins ever since," Raich said. Sheriff's spokesman Nelson said the sheriff "neither supports nor opposes the medical marijuana law.
"He's had no position on that," Nelson said. "He's just trying to do the best he can when a state law conflicts with a federal law."
By Josh Richman
October 16, 2009