Last week, Transport Canada unveiled a new policy aimed at cracking down on cannabis before taking to the skies.
In an announcement made late last week, the public body stated that Canadian airline and flight crews will be forbidden from consuming cannabis in any form for at least twenty-eight days prior to reporting for duty. With nearly a month between the last allowable consumption time and work, this effectively bans all active employees, even those working on even a part-time basis, from consuming cannabis full stop.
This 28 day ban works in combination with other airline policies, including those of Air Canada and WestJet, which completely prohibit employees in safety sensitive positions from using cannabis altogether, even while off duty.
Neither policy distinguishes between THC and CBD, the non-psychoactive cannabis compound.
This means that Canadian airline employees are effectively prohibited from consuming cannabis in any form, without exception.
These policies were crafted in the wake of cannabis legalization with public safety in mind…but it begs the question, are they at all necessary?
Inarguably, public safety is something that we must take very seriously. As a consistently nervous flyer, I am in favour of any rule, policy or recommendation that will enhance the overall safety of air travel.
This is particularly so when it comes to pilot, flight crew and ground crew impairment. The fitness of those in charge of making decisions is of pivotal importance when it comes to keeping things safe at a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet.
But in order to truly examine the question of whether an outright cannabis ban is necessary for the interests of safety, we should first consider the rules and regulations around alcohol consumption.
In contrast with the policies around cannabis, it may be shocking to learn that Transport Canada and the airlines themselves are relatively slack when it comes to alcohol.
While flight crews cannot use cannabis for twenty-eight days prior to duty, Transport Canada only bans pilots from consuming alcohol for a mere twelve hours before a flight.
Any reasonable person who has suffered from a bad hangover in the past must concede, in light of that experience, that they could still be impaired by alcohol even twelve hours after ending consumption. After all, alcohol hangovers can be just as impairing as drunkenness given their adverse effect on the human body, which can vary in symptoms from headaches, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, weakness, vertigo and even sensitivity to light and sound.
All of these symptoms could significantly interfere with a pilots’ ability to do their job safely.
What’s more, medical professionals agree that a that severe alcohol hangover can last for up to twenty-two hours after drinking has ceased.
And while it may be shocking that Transport Canada does not seem to recognize this issue, it’s all the more shocking when you consider that the twelve-hour rule was only recently enacted. Prior to December, 2018, pilots were only banned from consuming alcohol for eight hours before to a flight.
On the issue of lingering effects, the scientific community is still out on whether or not cannabis hangovers even exist. Unlike alcohol, these “hangovers” are undocumented and not empirically supported by the evidence. While some cannabis users have reported “brain fog” or headaches following a particularly heavy cannabis consumption, others report absolutely no symptoms whatsoever.
In fact, a study published in 1985 found no evidence of persisting cannabis impairment or cannabis hangover symptoms the day after consuming THC. This was backed up by another study from 1998, which came to, roughly, the same conclusion.
Without a scientifically-justified, medical basis for the lengthy flight crew cannabis ban, one can only speculate as to how it was even adopted in the first place. While it would not take an enormous leap to conclude that fear-mongering and stigma may have played a part, we can be quite certain that the ban will work to perpetuate it.
Not to mention the fact that these prohibitive and unfounded policies potentially violate the rights of countless airline employees who rely on the responsible use of medical cannabis to treat conditions ranging from chronic pain to cancer.
Inevitably, the ban will face legal challenges and could be overturned. However, it will take a painstaking amount of time and effort to do so. But it may ultimately be all for nothing.
After all, it’s already illegal to fly an aircraft while impaired, either by alcohol or by cannabis.