President’s Corner, 3Q18, “To Fly High or Not?… Keep Cannabis Out of the Cockpit


As pilots, we like to have plenty of altitude and airspeed in most situations.  That is particularly true in my home state of Colorado with 60+ mountain peaks over 14,000 feet MSL and density altitudes over 10,000 feet even in the flat plains in the East.  Colorado was also the first state to have legalized medicinal (2000) and recreational (2014) marijuana in the US.  Currently, nine states plus DC, Guam and Puerto Rico have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Other states allow medical marijuana with or without restriction on the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content.  Only three states, Nebraska, South Dakota and Idaho, prohibit all uses of marijuana.

So what does this mean for pilots who want to fly high?

The possession or use for any reason is still a Federal Crime under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.  It is classified as a Schedule 1 drug with no legitimate medical use.  It is a Federal crime to possess or use marijuana, even if states elect not to prosecute. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved a cannabis based medication, Epidiolex, for two rare forms of seizures.  The resolution of this incongruity remains to be seen at the Federal level.

From a flying perspective, there is no ambiguity.  Use of marijuana is not allowed for any reason in pilots as the FAA follows Federal Regulations, not state law.  The consequences of use of marijuana for a pilot can be severe, both from a safety perspective and from a certification perspective.

Canada legalized the possession, use and sale of marijuana nationally on October 17, 2018.  However, Transport Canada issued a statement that the use of cannabis by people involved in flight operations is still prohibited and individual airlines are prohibiting use by safety sensitive employees.

An FAA Aerospace Medicine Technical Report found marijuana metabolites in the pilots’ blood in 3.4% of fatal aviation mishaps between 2007 and 2016.  A study by the NTSB (14-01) found increasing rates of use of illicit and safety impairing drugs in fatal aviation accidents in the period between 1990-2012.  This increasing trend corresponds with increase in societal use.  The study is an excellent resource and includes recommendations for the FAA to increase pilot education about the hazards of impairing drugs.

Marijuana definitely impairs cognition, particularly with long-term use.  Visual motor skills, judgement, and reaction time are degraded.  Both psychological and physical dependence can develop in some users.  Current marijuana products have much higher concentrations of THC, the primary psychoactive component, than in past decades.  Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to adverse psychological and intellectual consequences.  See the NIH article. 

But what about CBD (cannabidiol) products?  They are also a product of the cannabis plant without the euphoric properties of THC.  This compound is the active ingredient in the recently approved FDA seizure drug, Epidiolex, mentioned above.  The problem for pilots who want to use CBD and hemp products is that THC is not completely extracted during the manufacturing process and can potentially be absorbed into the body.  For those professional pilots included in DOT drug testing programs or even company administered non-DOT testing, the risk of a positive test for THC is not eliminated.  Cannabinoid edibles (brownies, breads, lollipops, candies, etc.) tend to have high concentrations of THC and will likely cause a positive drug test.  Be careful what you eat and who you accept “fantastic treats” from. Similarly, studies have shown that passive inhalation or exposure to marijuana smoke does not cause positive tests at the cutoff levels for DOT testing.  Attending a Jimmy Buffet concert is not a legitimate explanation for a positive THC test!

Another danger is the risk of psychotic reactions and long-term psychoses, particularly with synthetic cannabinoids.  Some pilots used these very potent products to avoid testing positive in DOT testing.  Ironically, the medical consequences of this ploy resulted in permanent loss of FAA medical certification and in some cases, psychiatric hospitalizations and confrontation with the law.  This is very dangerous!

A quick synopsis for pilots considering the recreational or medicinal use of cannabis products: 

  • It is tested for on DOT testing
  • Any positive DOT test will likely result in revocation of all FAA pilot and other certificates
  • A positive DOT test will result in loss of medical certification and probably require treatment of substance abuse/dependence and monitoring in the HIMS program for certification
  • Hemp products and CBD oils, extracts etc. cannot guarantee the absence of THC (the substance tested for in DOT testing) in the product
  • Passive inhalation or unknowing ingestion/absorption is not a legitimate explanation for a DOT test positive
  • Use of cannabis for medical conditions is not authorized by the FAA and the underlying condition for which it would be “prescribed” (really recommended since physicians can’t prescribe a Schedule 1 drug) would be disqualifying as well
  • The FDA’s recent approval for a CBD containing drug for a rare type of seizures does not make CBD authorized for pilots
  • Arrests or convictions for impaired driving or possession of a controlled substance will be reviewed by the FAA as a part of the medical certification process and likely will result in a requirement for a substance abuse evaluation

Bottom Line:  If you enjoy being a pilot, don’t get high with marijuana or cannabis based products.  Get your altitude with solid, safe piloting skills and flying fun aircraft to enjoy the view from high above.

For information on the FAA’s HIMS Program for pilots with substance abuse problems, see the HIMS web site at

Fly Safely, Stay Healthy,