AINsight: CBD Revisited

 - June 10, 2022, 12:53 PM

I last specifically addressed CBD (cannabidiol) in October 2019. It is time for a refresher, especially now that the FAA has issued official guidance on the use of CBD products.

As a brief review, CBD is a naturally occurring compound found in the flowers of the cannabis plant (marijuana). It’s “purported” uses are well known, so I won’t bore you with a lengthy discussion.

The 2018 Farm Bill includes a provision that legalizes the cultivation of hemp, which is basically cannabis with a very low THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content—less than 0.3 percent. Therefore, growing hemp is now legal and it “should” contain less than 0.3 percent THC.

As most pilots know, marijuana itself is not legal to consume while flying—in reality, the FAA expects that a pilot never consumes marijuana, on or off duty. Further, for all pilots subject to random DOT testing in Part 135 and 121 operations, a positive test for THC is a showstopper.

Many states have “legalized” marijuana, even though it’s still, by federal law, a Schedule 1 drug of abuse—hence, federally, marijuana is still illegal. Although some states have legalized it individually, it does not make it acceptable for a pilot to consume marijuana.

In DOT testing, an on-duty positive test for any of the included substances—once confirmed as a true-positive through follow-up testing of the original sample—will result in the loss of both airman (pilot) and medical certificates. If a test was positive in an off-duty situation, such as at a hiring interview, then it is possible that the FAA may only revoke the medical certificate. Regardless, either outcome is a disaster for the pilot.

While the specifics of how these certificate revocations work is not germane to this discussion, suffice it to say that a pilot who has had certificate revocations would be very lucky to see a cockpit again for at least a year. Typically it takes longer than that.

CBD products are unregulated. The FAA recently issued formal guidance about the use of these products that basically mimics my October 2019 blog, and what I have been telling all of my pilots for a long time (and I ask them to remind all of their pilot colleagues).

Basically, the FAA stance is that it cannot specifically disqualify a pilot simply for using a CBD product. However, the purity and actual THC content is not guaranteed in an unregulated substance.

I have worked with pilots who have had a DOT-positive test for THC after taking a CBD product that “assured” the consumer that there was no THC present or that any THC content would be so low that there could not possibly be a positive test for THC as a result of the consumption of that product.

Buyer beware—for emphasis, I remind everyone that there are pilots who have received a positive test for THC after consuming a CBD product.

As I have stated before, and as the FAA now specifically states in its recent guidance, “A marijuana-positive DOT drug test resulting from CBD use (intentional or inadvertent) is treated as a positive test.”

Therefore, while the FAA makes no stance about the legality of consuming CBD, it is very clear that a positive test for THC will be handled no differently than a positive test from intentionally consuming marijuana.

Another important point to remember is that two positive lifetime DOT tests for any of the substances tested is a permanent bar from that pilot ever engaging in safety-sensitive functions. No slack here. No flying ever again, and the person couldn’t even work as a dispatcher or mechanic, for example (as these too are safety-sensitive functions).

Apparently, there have been posts on pilot websites that CBD is great and claiming it may help with jet lag, etc. Don’t buy that nonsense. All CBD does is risk a pilot’s career. Is it really worth it?

There are many other substances involved in DOT testing. These can include:

• Alcohol, usually tested by breathalyzer. While a legal substance to consume, excessive use can cause a DOT positive, which leads to all sorts of problems of its own. And evaluations would follow to determine if the pilot is suffering from alcohol abuse or dependence.

• Opioids. The naturally occurring compounds of heroin and morphine obviously have no justifiable use in pilots (morphine is still used in medical settings, but there is no justifiable personal use by a pilot otherwise). A few years ago, the DOT added synthetic opioids (such as hydrocodone and oxycodone) into the drug testing panel.

While these medications have legal uses (such as post-operatively), they are often easily obtainable for abuse. As I have stated before, consuming such products without a valid reason and current prescription also leads to problems of their own. 

And, of course, even if there is a valid use, a pilot can not fly while under the influence of narcotics. There are formal wait periods after the use of legal prescription narcotics, but the need for their chronic use would come under scrutiny by the FAA.

The other drugs have clearly no justifiable use. These include cocaine, phencyclidine (PCP), amphetamines and methamphetamines, and MDMA (ecstasy).

There are numerous other compounds of potential abuse, while not necessarily included in the DOT testing panel, that the FAA considers unacceptable in pilots. This may be worthy of an additional discussion at another time.

The use of fentanyl has been increasing in pilots, and that is being studied carefully by the FAA. I would not be surprised to see fentanyl added to the DOT testing panel in the not-too-distant future.

Returning to the main topic of this blog, CBD products can lead to positive DOT tests for THC. Whether the test was done on- or off-duty, the outcome is disastrous for the pilot.  

My recommendation is simple, and that is to avoid CBD products entirely.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.​