AINsight: CBD Still Risky Business for Pilots

 - October 14, 2022, 1:21 PM
Cannabis Field in den Schweizer Bergen
The FAA has further defined its CBD opinion but bottom line is, use may still have consequences to an airman's medical certification. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Felix Brönnimann)

In multiple prior blogs, I have discussed the risks that pilots take by consuming products that contain CBD (cannabidiol). As you probably already know, CBD products are, for the most part, “legal” (with variations on their acceptance on a state-by-state basis). This substance is manufactured from the cannabis plant (marijuana) with low quantities of the active ingredient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), made legal per the Farm Bill of 2018.

Not all states have legalized the use of CBD or marijuana itself, but more and more are jumping on the proverbial bandwagon. Other than the very low quantities of THC permitted by the Farm Bill, overall marijuana and THC consumption remain illegal under federal law.

CBD is promoted to have many potential benefits, which I have discussed previously. These can include treatments of anxiety, musculoskeletal pain, jet lag, and improvements in sleep, for example. For these reasons, the use of CBD products continues to increase, including in the pilot population. I make no claims about the effectiveness of CBD for any of its purported uses, but many people do report anecdotally of its beneficial effects. 

My point today is to reiterate and expand on comments that I’ve made in prior blogs, based on recent clarifications made by the FAA.

A few months ago, the FAA put out guidance explaining that while it cannot restrict a pilot from taking a legal substance, there may be consequences to their FAA medical and airman certification status as a result. As I have said before, ad nauseam, a THC-positive test, whether it is from marijuana or CBD, is handled essentially identically. The Code of Federal Regulations defines marijuana (and its psychoactive component, THC) as a Schedule 1 drug of abuse. These are prohibited from use in any DOT-regulated safety-sensitive activity. An on-duty positive test will lead to revocation of both pilot and medical certificates (an off-duty positive test, such as at a pre-hire screening test, may only lead to revocation of the medical certificate, which, of course, is a disaster in and of itself).

CBD products are unregulated, and therefore the amount of THC they contain cannot be accurately predicted. Taking CBD products puts a pilot’s career at risk, regardless of how much it can be argued that they are legal.

I have helped a number of pilots regain their medical certifications after a THC-positive test, which was either from the use of a CBD product or simply from an “incidental exposure” to marijuana (for example, accidentally taking a spouse’s marijuana “gummy” that was mistaken for something else). Bottom line; pilots are responsible for whatever goes into their mouths, so please be careful. 

The recent special issuance authorization letter for one of my pilots who had all of his pilot licenses (flight engineer, ATP, and all type ratings) and medical certificates revoked due to a THC-positive test from consuming a CBD product contained the following bold-faced warning; “A Federal Aviation Administration Medical Certificate is a Federal Department of Transportation Certificate and subject to federal law/regulation. The use of marijuana and/or use of THC in any form is aeromedically disqualifying and a violation of federal law regardless of state regulations.” That pilot lost well over a year of his career, but fortunately, through the special issuance process, he will again be able to return to the cockpit.

You will note the careful wording here. The FAA, without attempting to explain all of the nuances of the Farm Bill, the low quantities of THC theoretically legal for CBD products, and all of the confusing opinions and arguments that could be made about these substances, does, however, make it quite clear that such use is “aeromedically disqualifying” and “a violation of federal law regardless of state regulations.” 

The message is clear; a pilot found to have THC in their system will face significant and adverse career-altering consequences. 

It doesn’t matter, therefore, if state law permits a person to consume THC either from marijuana or CBD (again, not all states have proceeded according to the liberties offered in the Farm Bill). If that substance is found in a pilot there will be loss of certificate(s) and all kinds of documentation, evaluations, and possibly substance abuse treatments to follow. The pilot is looking at an extensive period of grounding and may even have to regain pilot certificates in addition to the medical certificate. Any pilot in such a position will additionally be monitored for all potential substances of abuse for a number of years, through a restrictive and complicated special issuance process.

Let’s also remember that there is also a regulation that states that a pilot with two DOT-positive tests is permanently barred from performing any safety-sensitive functions. 

Just as the FAA stated in its guidance that I discussed recently in a prior blog, while neither the FAA nor I can tell a pilot not to take CBD, please remember that doing so may jeopardize their career (hence the “aeromedically disqualifying” statement noted above).

Similarly, alcohol, of course, is a widely available and entirely legal substance. The FAA cannot tell a pilot not to consume alcohol. However, alcohol consumption in excess can lead to a DUI, an on-duty DOT-positive test, and many well-known potentially adverse health impacts. Excessive consumption of alcohol, therefore, can also be a career-breaker (let alone the risk of harming someone in an alcohol-related motor vehicle accident).

Pilots need to be aware of the potential impacts of unregulated substances they consume. Even legal and regulated products, such as alcohol, have ethical and legal consequences if consumed to excess. 

Flying as a pilot is an amazing career. Pilots often spend a boatload of money earning their certificates and ratings, followed by many years of baby steps toward their career advancement. One way to protect the careers that pilots earned through many years of arduous work is to be very careful about substance intake, and to understand and evaluate the risk-benefit ratio of whatever they ingest.

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