High Flying: How We Got Marijuana through JFK
Readers of my work may know that as a cancer survivor I have taken to dabbling in necessary medical tourism — the trendy practice wherein a lucky patient visits different cities, and sometimes nations, for required care. Of course, unlike many others, I’m still here to tell those tales, which include a host of trips I made in 2005, chronicled in Men’s Health, and more recently in Harper’s. Fortunately I’ve had the insurance, supportive friends, and family required to make such difficult trips possible, although these travel experiences haven’t exactly been holidays or improved my financial life. And yet in the “What Choice Do We Have?” sense, that’s explicitly why my wife Lina and I have so deeply enjoyed these fun-filled sojourns: They’re our attempts at Adventure Travel. Note, however, that in the following ditty, the word “adventure” doesn’t describe zip-lining in Costa Rica with angry monkeys after rotator-cup surgery but rather what it feels like to fear life and love in a TSA holding pen.
There’s always a cheerful beginning: In January 2010 I traveled from Los Angeles to Manhattan, setting up HQ in an east-side sublet, to undergo and recover from a neurosurgical procedure that saved my life. At the time I had been writing an essay for the Financial Times Magazine about plunging into LA’s medical marijuana subculture as a (somewhat) normal-looking/functional guy assessing cannabis for legitimate medical reasons. I wasn’t a character in a stoner film, but I had briefly (and unsuccessfully) experimented with weed as a means of pain relief, and I thought I might as well have some with me in New York, where a prescription for the stuff, even from a lauded California university physician, meant nothing.
Now, as I’ve written on The Faster Times, some airports in the San Francisco area will let you fly with medical marijuana. There’s just the little issue of airlines forbidding you to have it, to say nothing of other airports looking unkindly at the prospect of you landing with a pill bottle that reads, “Bubba Skunk,” in Comic Sans. I hence figured that if I wanted this so-called remedy in New York, I might have to engage in activity even a new Angeleno and former New Yorker like me should consider stupid: procuring a most likely substandard strain from a workaday Manhattan delivery service. Sure, I knew it unsafe to use the substance shortly before and after my surgery, but why not, I reckoned, visit the 70th floor home of an “American Psycho”-esque i-banker, where I’d meet two lovely stoned Jersey girls in sweatpants and pick up some “meds” — an eighth of an ounce, to be exact? As I discussed in the FT Magazine piece, it’s not as if the FDA-approved pills (essentially opium) given to me by a hospital ICU reduced my pain, although they did help me see new colors I could only describe to dolphins, and I just wanted to have as much help at the ready as possible.
All of which is to say that as I recovered from my procedure we had some unused weed in New York, and I would forget about it in the days following the surgery. I had safe little opiates at my disposal if I wanted to mess with space and time, and ridiculous me, I was just not angry to be alive. But then, weeks passed, and it was time to visit family on Long Island before returning to LA. “Let’s just keep the stuff in the front compartment of the duffel for now,” I said to Lina as we readied our bags for the weekend. And that’s the last I saw or thought about cannabis in my carry-on. Until the day we flew home.
Fast forward, VHS-style, because that’s how the world felt in my head then: It wasn’t easy to bid farewell to family, putting in perspective the life-threatening intracranial exploration enjoyed at the hospital. But maybe this state compared to what George Harrison had felt when he left India? Or maybe I made too many pop-culture allusions due to PTSD? Regardless, as we lugged our many bags into JFK’s JetBlue terminal 5, Lina and I had serious emotions to quash. All we wanted was to slink through security, sit on some mod pod-seat and at least pretend to relax with a cocktail. And we were just about settled in our happy place, not before an affordable stop at the Muji design store when… Actually, I’m not sure what made me remember it, but it was then, as my wife and I stood in the center of Terminal 5′s foodcourt area, travelers swirling around us sucking water from Fiji bottles, the pale blue light of an upscale bar in bas-relief, that I said:
“You took that weed out of the duffel before we packed it, right?”
Lina said nothing, looked at me like I was the kind of man who would marry someone, drag her across the country to hospitals, and survive innovative neurosurgery — all while screwing around with pot like a high-school freshman.
“It’s in there. No. I Didn’t take it out. It’s in there. It’s in there. It’s in there!” Lina said.
“What?” I asked.
“The Weed. It’s in the baggg.”
“The bag we checked and sent through security?”
“Are we talking about another bag?”
“You didn’t take it out?”
“What the — I mean, fuck, what do we do?”
“I know, because I worked in law enforcement before entering my Ph.D. program.”
“We have to get it,” I said.
“It’s checked. It’s probably already gone through.”
“With my name on it,” I said.
Silence. Then my whimpering question:
“Will they be waiting for me to board the plane?”
Lina: “I don’t know?!?!!”
I felt unusually nervous, perhaps worse than I did on the operating table before closing my eyes, potentially forever.
“Are They watching us right now?” I asked. “They are, right? Look at that couple. That little kid holding an iPhone. They could be Anyone.”
“I don’t think They are Little Asian Babies Holding iPhones.”
“This isn’t going to end well,” I said.
“I don’t know. I just think we should let it go. I mean, it wasn’t that much.”
“The bag reeked when I picked it up in your parents’ house.”
“That’s because you put it up to your face.”
“Like security dogs?”
“Ok, we have to get it.”
It would be easy: We’d just run back to the check-in area and ask the sweet guy who took our bags. Ask him to return… our drugs?
“But wait,” I asked Lina. “Won’t he ask why we need the bag back?”
“You just had surgery. You need to take medicine you packed by mistake.”
“That’s not going to make them suspicious?”
“Oh, you want to walk up to a plane, knowing that you could be taken away by federal marshals. OK.”
“That wouldn’t happen, right?”
“No, you’re not the Undie-bomber.”
“But it’s true,” I said, my pulse beating faster than “slowly,” like a bad Vanilla Ice song. “Even if I got onto the plane, they could be waiting for me in LA.”
“Yes,” Lina said.
“They could phone once I’m on the plane, watch me, and take me out once we land.”
“I don’t think they’ll ‘take you out.’ But yes, you could go to prison.”
“After brain surgery?”
“Well, that could be a bargaining chip.”
“I knew I did it for some reason.”
Lina picked up her rolly luggage-thing, her eyes locked on the TSA’s finest.
“So we should go back out then,” she said.
And we ran. And got through the gates back to check-in. Where another kind man, potentially with Navy SEALS training, stared us down as we waited in line. Again. Without bags.
“We need to get a bag back,” I told him, looking crazed, possibly blowing our cover.
“Med-i-cine. He packed medicine he needs to take,” Lina said. “We need to retrieve it.”
The man peered at us curiously, possibly thinking.
Why would someone who needs medicine with him pack it away? I looked around. A security guard picked his nose by the double-doors that led to safety, i.e. the glorious Belt Parkway.
The check-in man picked up his walkie-talkie.
“Tell me your name and flight number,” he said to me.
“You have to wait now. It could be a while. Your flight boards in an hour.”
Lina and I looked at each other, smiling spastically, phew-ing.
“Ok,” I said.
“Go, wait, over there,” said the man, pointing to the corner of the room. “I will tell you when they call.”
“‘They’ are just the baggage people, right?”
Lina kicked me. Hard.
“Just go wait there,” he said.
Lina rolled her eyes. We went to the corner, sat down.
20 minutes passed.
“They’re just keeping us here so they can arrest me,” I said.
“They’re probably just looking for the bag,” Lina said. “I bet it would have went through fine.”
“What? Really? Why didn’t you say that before?”
“Right, that’s true. But they also could have arrested me.”
“That’s true, too. I think this is the best thing, really. I mean, could you have sat on that plane for six hours wondering if you were going to be arrested?”
“It might not have been any worse than sitting on the plane for six hours, coming here, wondering if I was going to die in the O.R.”
“Let’s just stay positive,” Lina said.
“Ok,” I said. “Because I’m positive they’re watching us and holding us here. I’m positive I’m screwed. Will you come to jail and visit me? It won’t be as positively nice as the hospital, but–”
“YOU!!!” cried the check-out man, waving a lanky arm.
I looked for approval in Lina’s tired eyelids. She didn’t sleep the night before, that’s why she was exhausted. It had nothing to do with me, with this.
“Should we go?” I asked.
“Do you want your bag?!”
We stood up and walked to the desk. Certain death — or at least a little prison rape — seemed imminent.
“Go down to baggage claim for extra large bags,” said the man. “It’s on the far side. Farrrr side. Wait there. It will come.”
We nodded. And sprinted again.
But why, I wondered, was it coming down the chute for extra large materials? It was the size of a gym bag.
We ran faster, nearly tripping down the escalator, pushing people away like They do in John Hughes movies when They’re Late for Flights in O’Hare. Life did not, in fact, imitate bad art.
Soon, surprisingly, we were in baggage claim, but over on the side, somewhat separated from the normal-sized-bag people. We waited about 15 minutes. Then a golf bag came down and some country club douchebag, replete with Kangol cap, came up from behind me and grabbed his clubs.
I almost decked him. That’s what I told myself anyway.
I looked around. Lina pretended to speak on her phone.
I saw a security guard 30 feet from us, in another corner. Watching. Then I saw the cop. And his dogs. Two of them. 50 feet from us. Glaring.
I smiled faintly. Hello, kind sirs, I thought. Yes, that’s probably how my ancestors addressed the S.S. officers who shot them in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Then, it happened: Our black bag appeared at the top of the conveyer belt, sliding down like a child in a playground happy to see his parents.
Ok, it wasn’t like that. It actually got stuck. But then it popped loose and descended slowly. Could a bag be pissed off?
Lina took my hand. “Don’t do anything,” she said.
I loved how my wife was MacGyver now.
She picked up the bag, still on the phone, and walked to me. Then she began speaking non-sequitors.
“That’s why. It’s because of this. I’m SO glad we’re finally doing it. I know, I know…”
As she spoke, she slid her hand onto the front of the bag, shielded by my lamb chops for legs. I could hear the zipper.
I checked the fuzz. Still observing.
Suddenly Lina was pushing me from the small of my back. We were walking.
“Here, take your pills,” she said loudly, handing me a Tylenol.
The Tylenol had also been in the bag’s front compartment.
I could see the escalator that would loft us back up to check-in land. Vamanos.
“Wait, I just have to tie my shoe,” Lina said.
She bent down to make a nice bow on her Chucks. Right by the escalator. I looked up at the cops again. Still Watching.
At which point I heard The Rustle. The joyous crumply sound of a tiny brown paper bag being pushed into the trash can in front of me. It was like jingle bells, but less metallic and ringy.
“Let’s go!” Lina ordered. “We’re going to be late. Again!”
I followed her to the escalator.
“You just threw it out, right? I think you just threw it out. How did you even find it without looking? Do you have three arms?”
I couldn’t stop asking questions. I was amazed.
“Shut up,” Lina said. She was having the time of her life, that much was clear.
We arrived at check-in. The security line had tripled in length. We had 30 minutes to make our flight.
“So do you think it even went through all the way?”
“It must have,” Lina said.
“So I could have basically gotten away with this.”
“I don’t know, Ad.”
I touched her flushed cheek. She flinched.
“You saved me,” I said. “I won’t go to jail now… I promise that I’ll never try to smuggle drugs through airport security and then try to get them back so we can throw them out in front of cops again.”
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