Marijuana Legalization: Should Airplane Pilots be Allowed to Smoke?

As marijuana legalization becomes more mainstream and goes from protests to policy, decision-makers will have to figure out how and what to regulate in this burgeoning industry. Brian Milam is one of the first individuals to have a run-in with unclear marijuana laws: he was fired from his job as a pilot at Horizon Air in 2011 for failing a drug test.

The central issue should be whether or not Milam was fit to operate a plane when he failed the drug test. When marijuana is legal, how will we determine safe amounts that do not “impair judgment?” The Seattle Pi reports that Milam failed the drug test after flying a safe round trip flight from Seattle, Washington, to Redmond, Oregon. Here, we see a paradox: he piloted a plane safely for approximately two hours, claims he “never used marijuana while on duty and refrained from smoking the night before an early shift,” yet he failed his test. Would he have been fired had marijuana been legal?  

Firstly, let’s look at science. The active ingredient that most drug tests screen for, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), exits the body slowly than other substances, such as alcohol or caffeine. For habitual drug users, a standard drug test can pick up traces of THC for days or even weeks after past use. A habitual user, like Milam (he claimed to use medical marijuana for back pain one to three times per week) could fail a drug test long after the effects of the marijuana, or the “high,” had worn off. As marijuana becomes legal in more states and, eventually, at the federal level, drug screenings should be read with this in mind, not exactly like an alcohol screening.

Secondly, let’s look at policy. Both a) public policy and b) company policy will determine where to draw the line. Let us assume that marijuana is legal within the public policy frame and that the only limitations to marijuana usage are in company policy. Companies should clearly articulate their substance abuse policy to avoid gray areas regarding drug tests and even lawsuits, such as the ongoing one between Milam and Horizon Air. Issues they should address include: the use of alcohol and marijuana outside of work, inside of work, the lingering effects of the substances, and substance abuse counseling or treatment, to name a few.

Lastly, let’s look at public opinion and perception. While public opinion and perception should probably not dictate justice or the law, it may be important to a company and how liberal or conservative they decide to make their substance abuse policy. (Want proof that a company’s stance towards controversial issues matter? Just look at Chick-Fil-A.) There are many people that are firmly against marijuana usage and believe in “reefer madness.” These people might feel uncomfortable flying in a plane with a pilot who had lit one up a year ago. At the other extreme, there might be people that disagree with my statement that marijuana “impairs judgment,” whom would have no qualms about getting into an airplane with a pilot that has been smoking.

As for me? Post-legalization, I think that pilots should be allowed to use marijuana just like they use any other mind-altering substance (with an exception for caffeine). I believe the company policy and drug screenings should acknowledge the difference between different types of  substances – such as marijuana and alcohol – but what Brian Milam or any other pilot does when he’s not on the job is frankly none of my business.