Airlines still awaiting federal guidelines for cannabis

Aug 16, 2018

As it moves towards the October 17th recreational cannabis legalization date, the Federal government still needs to provide regulations for Canada’s airline industry regarding the effects of cannabis on its crews and pilots.

Currently, Transport Canada uses alcohol regulations to ban flight staff from imbibing within eight hours of flying. And while many airlines take this safety precaution one step further and require twelve “dry” hours before their employees are in the air, there are no parts of these existing regulations that cite procedure for the consumption of cannabis.

John McKenna, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of Canada says, “We’ve received no official guidance whatsoever. No regulations, no proposed regulations. We’ve received nothing so far…We just want prescriptive regulations. What’s acceptable? What’s not acceptable, for the crews, the flight attendants, the maintenance people.”

McKenna says he broached the topic with Transport Minister Marc Garneau, and was told the government is currently working on formulating airline regulations. Garneau has since stated that the current regulations already prohibit pilots and crews from working if they’re under the influence of an intoxicating substance, this includes cannabis. Each employee must receive a “fit for duty” medical certification to fly, which can be revoked if the impairment prevents safe work conditions.

As Garneau’s director of operations Mélany Gauvin states, “Cannabis can impair a person’s ability to safely operate any type of aircraft, risking the lives of people and property. It is illegal to fly while impaired by cannabis now and after it is legal in Canada.”

This is proving to be insufficiently reassuring for many, especially as an immediate and accurate test for cannabis impairment has still not been approved in Canada. As a result, there is no immediate way to show how much THC, the active substance in cannabis, is in a person’s system, and whether or not the present amount breaks the law. To muddy the waters further, THC can remain in a user’s system beyond the period of impairment, depending on the user’s tolerance and body chemistry.

Phyl Durdey, an aviation expert with Flightline Training Services, believes caution and clarity are key: “We have to outline it more specifically…Where’s the benchmark, or the measurement for the cannabis, or the marijuana in your system?…I think it is prudent for Transport Canada to scrutinize this a little bit further, and actually set forth exact guidelines to say, ‘Hey, this is not acceptable.'”

Even more problematic for pilots, who may experience stress, is that THC can be released from fat cells during an “adrenaline event.” As Durdey clarifies, “If there’s anything that is in the person’s system that could cause, for instance, an adrenaline rush, or have this THC that’s stored in the system deploy at a certain critical point in time, then it could have adverse effects.”

As in other workplaces across the country, inaccurate testing methods and human rights issues raised by the prospect of random testing are bringing to the forefront the reality that some workers in safety sensitive positions, like airline pilots and crews, will not be tested sufficiently before their work begins.

McKenna has been advocating random testing like that used by Toronto’s TTC, a series of random checks and regulations that state any operators of streetcars and subways in Toronto’s public transit system who have used cannabis within four hours of their shift are considered impaired.

“We’ve been asking for that for a long time,” McKenna says. “We were asking, ‘Is this something that’s going to come along with this legalization of marijuana?’ And we’ve got no commitment so far of any kind.”

Certain airlines are planning to have their own regulations in place before October 17th, including Westjet, who promises it will “strictly prohibit the use, possession and distribution of cannabis on the company premises, worksites, while on duty and at company social functions,” and Air Canada, which says it will have the “appropriate policies in place” before the deadline.