Monday, November 27, 2006

I read Sam's account of his last Saturday night when he had to pee in a cup to keep his job, and I wanted to respond a little.

Routine, random drug testing is a major part of aviation life in the USA, but it really doesn't come up a lot in Canada. I have never been drug-tested as a pilot, but then again I would certainly pass the test if someone held a cup out to me right now and told me to make like Niagra Falls.

I have flown dozens and dozens of really nasty alcohol-related medevacs and not a single marijuana-related one. No, that's not a scientific study, but I also happened to live with a police officer who shared my experience.

I firmly believe that pot is a lot less harmful than alcohol, and long as it didn't affect a person's ability to show up for work refreshed and alert, I could care less if they went home at the end of the day and smoked a joint rather than downing a few beers.

Of course I agree that Marijuana use is risky.

The single greatest risk is getting a criminal record and/or going to jail. That would mean no flights to the USA amongst other things, and that would put a serious hurt on your career with any major airline.

Attempting to smuggle it across the border might be lucrative, but if caught in the States, it's pretty much guaranteed jail-time. Not worth the risk, in my opinion, but I don't have any particularly serious financial pressures either.

The other main risk, obviously, is eating too many Doritos and growing a huge ass.

I would have a real problem with my employer making me pee in a jar to keep my job; beyond the obvious invasion of privacy it seems to me that my employer shouldn't be assuming I'm a criminal. I mean, I'm a grown up and I have a considerable responsibility at my job, which I take very seriously. I have never flown drunk and never flown stoned, and I wouldn't dream of doing so. But what I do on my time off is my business, and my employer doesn't own me.

I wouldn't have a problem with on-the-spot testing for pot, so as to weed out (heh get it?) the 0.001% of pilots who might attempt to show up for work stoned, but unfortunately that's not how urine testing works. Urine testing wouldn't necessarily tell you if I was currently impaired, it would only tell you if I have been impaired at any point up to a month ago, and that's not information that's particularly relevant to my ability to do my job.

Marijuana traces in the blood are only detectable for a very short time, as in 24 hours after you last sparked one up. But THC does linger in your fat, where is it slowly metabolized. While this is happening, the metabolites are detectable in your urine.

Marijuana metabolites can be found in the urine of heavy smokers (those who smoke at least once a day) for up to a month after the last time they got lit. If your indiscretions consist of getting drunk at the bar and then sharing a joint with 5 other people in the back alley before going back in for round 11, it will take less time before your pee tests as clean.

There are other risks besides failing the dreaded pee test though: If you are in an accident and the authorities think that drugs may have played a part in it, the cops can compel you to pee in a jar. Even if you merely smelled a doobie a week before the accident, if it shows up in your test, you can bet the TSB will list it as one of the causes and you can also bet that Transport Canada will be all over that.

In real life, what you do on your own time should be your own business, but if smoking pot (or eating mushrooms or snorting giraffe hypothalamuses) means that you ever show up for work in an altered state, then it's time to ground yourself, call Betty Ford and clean up your act.

I am grateful that in Canada we generally have the freedom to decide how willing we are to risk what we have been working toward all our lives and have spent tens of thousands of dollars on. Most of us view aviation as risk-management, and most of us will eventually determine that the risk simply isn't worth the reward, at least until we can retire and do whatever the hell we want.

But we have that choice, unlike Sam. And I think that's something very valuable.


Anonymous said...

In the U.S. (and I suppose Canada as well) they have a new (ish) test that uses the hair. They trim and test a few hairs that are the 1.5 inches of hair closest to your scalp and can detect marijuana use for up to 3 months, regardless of how often you've smoked it or your metabolism. About the only thing that will break the test is Albino hair which is missing some of the lipids (I think) that the molecules attach to.

Anonymous said...

And if you are bald?

Garrett said...

Thumbs up to this post. I haven't even seen marijuana since I was a teenager, but the idea that a drunkard is OK by the authorities so long as they are sober on test day but a marijuana user is always guilty by default is simply absurd.

As you said, its about risk management, and most have decided that the (arbitrary and artificial) risks of casual marijuana use are far from worth it. I'm not even a pilot, but here in the USA I can't justify even being at a party where people are smoking marijuana due to the very large risks imposed by law and policy.

I'd be willing to bet that the tiny portion of pilots that test positive for something like marijuana use might actually correlate with higher incident rates in airplanes, but I'd also be willing to bet this is a symptom of poor risk management skills rather than evil-drug-intoxication.

Aviatrix said...

A commenter from YYZ ground ops mentioned in response to my post on drug testing that those who drive vehicles airside are subject to random testing, so we Canadians aren't all trusted as much as we should be.

And Anonymous 9:11 : I'm sure they could find somewhere to take a hair sample.

zb said...

Again, I can hear people scream again how important security is and that it's security above all and nothing but security all the time. If privacy is impaired, that's not supposed to be a problem, because there's terror everywhere. Why do I even care that in the neighbourhood where I work, you can't even go for a walk in your lunchbreak without being cctv'ed and videotaped at about a dozen corners.

I do like the concept of responsibility, really. I dislike the idea that huge collections of data get us anywhere, safety-wise. Or much rather, anything-wise.

david said...

I don't usually like "slippery-slope" arguments, but in the U.S., it's easy to see just how fast you can slide downhill. It's bad enough making pilots and other people in safety-related jobs pee into cups, but in many parts of the U.S., employers can require random employee drug testing in just about *any* job, from computer programming to flipping burgers.

I wonder if the American revolutionaries are rolling over in their graves, watching their descendants let their government and employers herd them around like sheep.