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Do Airport Scanners Detect Drugs?

Airport scanners are not specifically looking for drugs, but TSA agents know when and where to find them on people and in bags. The scanners will not flag drugs as drugs immediately. But, an in-depth search from TSA security agents will likely turn up any substances, and you will be denied entry into the airport and face legal consequences.

This article will explain how airport scanners keep flights safe, what the scanners detect, and if they can see through clothes. Then, there is information on bringing medication on airplanes and whether or not the TSA looks for drugs.

While this article is about drugs while traveling, it is for informational purposes only. We do not condone taking illegal drugs, whether you are traveling or not. We also do not recommend traveling with any illegal drugs. 

Are Airport Scanners Effective at Keeping Flights Safe?

congested airport security
TSA airport security check point

Airport security may seem intense whenever you need to go through it. With high-tech security, are airport scanners effective at keeping flights safe?

A 2017 study found that TSA missed 70% of fake weapons that passengers brought through security. This number is an improvement from prior years. 

Furthermore, the TSA Red Team, the people who test their officers to see what they find or don’t find, could get over 95% of their test items past TSA. While the Red Team does know where to best hide items since they are TSA officers, more items should have been found by the officers on duty.

While the agents and scanners are good at what they do, they are not perfect. TSA agents are often distracted explaining why full water bottles and shampoo can’t be brought on planes when they should be focused on dangerous items. 

You may feel safe at the airport, and TSA agents do their best to detect all dangerous items that enter the airport or get onto airplanes. But, the TSA does miss some items that should not be allowed through the airport. The airport scanner technology that the TSA uses is constantly being improved, so airport security will only get safer as time goes on.

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What Do Airport Security Scanners Detect?

There are different types of airport security detectors, and they all detect different items, both legal and illegal.

The detectors that you walk through at the airport are meant to detect metal. Any large metal objects such as watches and belts will set off the detectors, and you will need to remove them before you pass through the detector. 

The machines do not detect very small pieces of metal like earrings or buttons on your clothes, so you do not need to worry about having them on your person.

Another type of machine, the millimeter-wave machine, detects hidden items on the body, such as in pockets or waistbands. Hidden items like knives, guns, and other weapons are found using these machines, and if the machine detects anything, a pat-down is required. Sometimes the machine will detect something that is not there, so they use a pat-down to check for objects. 

Airport scanners do not explicitly detect drugs, but they are often flagged as suspicious, and the security officers will pat you down if they are on your person or pull your bag to be searched.

Airports also have special dogs that sniff passengers for drugs, and if your bag is wiped for any substances, the officer will easily detect any drugs. 

Can Airport Scanners See Through Clothes?

Airport scanners can see through clothing to detect hidden items but not to see your body. 

For example, if you have anything hidden in your pockets or any body piercings or jewelry on your person. You may need to empty your pockets and pass through the body scanner again or participate in a pat-down to ensure that you have no dangerous items. 

However, the airport scanners will not show pictures or x-rays of your body. The security workers will not see you naked under your clothes or bones as other x-ray machines show.

Does the TSA Look for Drugs?

TSA checking bag

TSA does not actively look for drugs when they screen passengers and luggage at the security checkpoint. TSA focuses on the safety of passengers, airport employees, and airline crew members, so they are looking for dangerous items that put people’s security at risk.

Here is the TSA’s official statement on drugs:

TSA’s screening procedures are focused on security and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers. Accordingly, TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs, but if any illegal substance is discovered during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.

But what if the TSA does find drugs?

As mentioned in their official statement, the TSA will pass illegal drugs and the legal ramifications of possessing illegal drugs onto the local law enforcement agency. You will not be able to pass through security, and you will need to wait for a law enforcement officer to handle your case.

If you have any questions about bringing drugs on airplanes, such as medical marijuana, or marijuana in states where it is legal, you can refer to the TSA website

If you can’t find the item you are looking for, you can use the Ask TSA account on Twitter. You can tweet at AskTSA (@AskTSA) / Twitter with a picture and description of the item, and they will respond during normal business hours. 

Even if the website or Twitter account says that your item is fine to pass through security, the final decision always lies with the officers on duty at the airport. If they deem an item to be dangerous or otherwise unsafe, you will not be able to bring it to the airport.

Can I Bring my Medication on Airplanes?

If you have any legal prescription drugs or over-the-counter medicine, you will be able to bring it through security, but you may need to take some extra steps at the security checkpoint.

The following medical items are allowed on airplanes, but you must tell a security officer that you have them and place them in a separate bin for screening.

  • Insulin
  • Insulin pumps & supplies
  • Liquid medications
  • Syringes

As for pills and pill cutters, you can bring these through airport security with no issues. You can leave them in your bag, and you do not have to declare them to the security officer. This rule also applies to liquid medications smaller than 3.4 ounces, which is the standard liquid size allowed on planes.

Medicine is one of the many confusing things that people question when flying. Another is empty suitcases, and which you can read more about bringing empty suitcases on a plane.

Final Thoughts

If you have any illegal drugs on you when you go to the airport, the airport scanners and security officers will most likely find them. Airport scanners will also detect any items, specifically metals, that you have on your person. 

If you set off the scanner, you will need to be patted down by a security officer and have your bag checked. The airport scanners do not see you naked through your clothes. Their goal is to find any items that pose a threat to the safety of passengers and airport employees.

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Hayden Wall

Hayden is the founder of Travel Gear Discounts and tries to vacation as much as possible. He loves finding the latest travel accessories that will make getting out easier and planning the perfect weekend getaway.