Does cannabis have a future in flight?

Published May 25, 2023 01:00 p.m. ET
Unsplash / Ross Parmly

The world of aviation has made leaps and bounds evolving at an astounding rate since its beginning when the Wright brothers made history by successfully taking to the skies in 1903. Modern planes can achieve hypersonic speeds, making a journey from Tokyo to the heart of Los Angeles something an adventure that’s possible to complete in just under two hours.

The connection between cannabis and flying is unique and the subject of today’s article where we’ll explore the potential intersection from all angles.

Substance abuse testing

To begin it’s important to highlight the struggle of pilots who must endure rigorous drug testing. The aviation industry, as it should, takes the safety of everyone on board very seriously, which is a good thing, but when pilots can still test positive for cannabis 30 or more days after using it, these restrictions are prohibitive, particularly for those who may benefit from its compounds be it recreationally or medicinally.

Until we develop more precise, reliable less invasive tests to detect cannabinoids, pilots are unable to smoke a joint at the end of a long hard day to unwind, leaving them no choice but to drink alcohol or have nothing instead. The FAA is strict and pilots that test positive will have their license revoked, even if it’s been weeks or even a month since they last used cannabis. This is problematic for many reasons, and it’s crucial the world's leading experts work on solutions so they too may have equal and fair access to the plant and its many benefits when they aren’t in the air.

Cannabis and flying induced anxiety

Flying high isn’t something that’s overly enjoyable or exciting for everyone. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to experience anxiety, stress, or even intense fear leading up to and during a flight. However, there are options for relief, with some being prescribed by doctors and others derived from cannabis. Cannabinoids and terpenes can help to relieve some of the stress you may be feeling, though which elements may be the most effective differ from one individual to the next.

Some people report superior calming after using flower, edibles, tinctures, capsules, or drinks with high concentrations of THC, while others prefer the gentler soothing experience of CBD alternatives. It’s also not uncommon for certain users to feel anxiety or endure panic attacks from taking too much THC, so it’s important to experiment before taking to the skies so you’re guaranteed to know which element is most compatible with your tolerance and preference.

Certain cannabis terpenes including lavender, myrcene, pinene, terpinolene, nerolidol, caryophyllene, and linalool may also be effective for treating anxiety, due to their anxiolytic, sedative, or other properties associated with relaxation. However, much like with cannabinoids this type of aromatic therapy differs from one person to the next, so again it’s difficult to say which one would be best to consume or apply topically when you’re anxious about flying.

While it’s not generally recommended to use cannabis products or any other substance before or during a flight, these compounds could help to calm the nerves, relax the muscles, and soothe the mind, so your trip is a bit more enjoyable and less exhausting.


Cannabis and sleep

One of the biggest problems with flying great distances is the effects of jet lag. Time differences from one country to the next are often significant, making it hard to adjust after landing, which leaves some passengers tired and sluggish. Adjusting to new time zones is hard, especially for pilots who must do it on a regular basis. The only real solution at this time is sleep, and it doesn’t always come easily. Luckily cannabis can help by both improving sleep quality and shortening the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.

This benefit could make a huge difference, particularly for pilots who must be well-rested to perform at their best in the sky, especially since many sleep aids have effects that linger which could make operating an aircraft safely far more challenging.

Cannabis and in-flight entertainment

Another way cannabis could positively impact passengers on planes is by enhancing the way they perceive, feel, and engage with entertainment options. Whether they’re playing games, watching a great movie, taking in a show, or simply having a conversation with others, cannabis compounds could make it more entertaining, in turn resulting in what feels like a much shorter journey because time flies when you’re having fun!

Though it is certainly hard to imagine now, in the future, once legalization happens in more countries and states airlines could eventually offer smoke-free options that won’t adversely affect other passengers riding in close quarters, like beverages or edibles, as part of their benefits package to appeal to potential customers.

The future of cannabis and aviation

It’s unlikely we’ll see any of the situations mentioned in this article be encouraged or supported by airlines in the near future, but it’s worth exploring the potential benefits and drawbacks these changes could make for both passengers and pilots. As our understanding and society's acceptance of the plant evolves, cannabis could play a bigger role in how we travel by plane, by making it even better than ever before.

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