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Can You Fly While High?

By Michael Berry, M.D. Federal Air Surgeon

Change, the defining characteristic of history, is inevitable. Sometimes change creates conflict between state and federal laws, as is the case now that some jurisdictions around the United States approve medicinal and even recreational use of marijuana. As far as the federal government’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is concerned, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug and, as such, is strictly illegal.

The debate about who’s right and who’s wrong about marijuana is beyond the scope of this column. My point is that even if legality was not an issue, marijuana remains a disqualifying drug. Let me be perfectly clear: If you are flying while under the influence of marijuana, you are flying impaired. If you are flying with marijuana or its metabolites detectable in your body, you are flying illegally. You should also be aware that marijuana, or its metabolites, may remain in the body for as long as 30 days after use.

Why Do We Need to Make this Statement?

In 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a long-term study of pilot impairment (go.usa.gov/x56Ky), which examined the toxicology results of pilots fatally injured between 1990 and 2012. In this study, the NTSB noticed an increased prevalence in marijuana use among those pilots. In fact, the NTSB noted that when comparing the first five years to the last five years of the study, positive marijuana results nearly doubled.

Combined with other studies that show increased marijuana use in the general population and new state laws allowing expanded medical/recreational use of marijuana, the NTSB became concerned about the potential safety impact. Its report notes that “illicit drug use is particularly concerning to transportation safety because, unlike typical therapeutic use of drugs in which impairment is often an undesired side effect, illicit drug users are often actively seeking the impairing effects of the drug.” The NTSB concludes that: “Not surprisingly, there is evidence showing that taking illicit drugs significantly elevates the risk of having an aviation accident.” The FAA concurs with this opinion.

What is the FAA’s Policy on Marijuana?

FAA policy on marijuana use is clear. The FAA considers marijuana to be an illicit drug, regardless of whether the airman has a prescription or lives in a state where marijuana is approved for recreational use. Illicit drug use by crewmembers (including pilots) is not allowed, as stipulated in 14 CFR part 91.17(a)(3): “(a) No person may act or attempt to act as a crewmember of a civil aircraft — (3) While using any drug that affects the person’s faculties in any way contrary to safety.” Parts 91.17, and 61.15, also contain penalties for conviction of crimes involving marijuana (Federal or State).

Additionally, 14 CFR part 67 (medical standards) defines substance dependence, including marijuana dependence, as a specifically disqualifying condition for all classes of medical certificates (sections 67.107, 67.207, and 67.307). This means that both the use of marijuana, and dependence upon it, are disqualifying. The DOT states that: “Marijuana remains a drug listed in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. It remains unacceptable for any safety-sensitive employee subject to drug testing under the Department of Transportation’s drug testing regulations to use marijuana.” (See go.usa.gov/x56kv for more).

While DOT drug testing (random and pre-employment) regulations don’t apply to many general aviation pilots, the same safety sensitivity does. As I noted earlier, marijuana is a significantly impairing drug. The qualities that make it so attractive to some users are the same ones that make it particularly dangerous for an airman. It results in significant performance degradation of the executive functions of the brain (e.g., decision-making, multitasking, and situational awareness), which are absolutely critical to safe piloting.

The FAA policy is clear: No flying on marijuana. If you are not a pilot subject to drug testing, you are still risking your safety. If you are subject to drug testing, you are also jeopardizing your employment, regardless of any prescription or recreational use laws. If you do live in a state that approves medical/recreation use of marijuana, please exercise great care, and remember how long marijuana and its metabolites remain in the body, when deciding if you are ready to return to flight.

Bottom line: I recommend avoiding marijuana if you want to fly.