OTTAWA—Don’t even think about flying high.
That’s the rule Canada’s airlines have laid down for pilots, mechanics and other front-line personnel in advance of Wednesday’s legalization of recreational marijuana use.
Air Canada, WestJet and Jazz are among the carriers that have imposed a blanket ban on cannabis use for many employees directly involved in flight operations as Transport Canada warns that cannabis is a “potential threat” to aviation safety.
“Employees working in safety-critical areas at the company, including flight operations and aircraft maintenance, will be prohibited from using cannabis and cannabis products at all times, both on-duty and off-duty,” Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email Monday.
That includes those in the air, such as pilots and flight attendants, and personnel on the ground involved in operations, such as mechanics and flight dispatchers. Other Air Canada employees will be prohibited from using cannabis while on-duty or in the workplace.
“We are acting out of an abundance of caution based on current understanding of the effects of these drugs, including their after-effects and the potential they can linger in the human system. This policy will be reviewed regularly and updated to include new information related to recreational cannabis use,” Fitzpatrick said.
WestJet’s updated policy prohibits the use and possession of cannabis on company premises and workplaces — and at company social functions. And like Air Canada, WestJet employees in “safety-sensitive” positions will be prohibited from using cannabis even when not on duty.
“We believe these changes reflect our reputation as an industry leader in safety and our expectations that all employees report fit for duty and remain fit for duty at work,” spokesperson Lauren Stewart said.
Jazz has introduced a similar policy, banning employees in safety-critical positions from using marijuana on or off duty, spokesperson Debra Williams said.
Nav Canada, the private company that operates the country’s air traffic control system, said it would reveal its cannabis policy for employees on Wednesday. But a spokesperson said it already has a zero tolerance policy for impairment due to alcohol or drugs.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Monday that employees in the transport sector are expected to be “fit to do your job.”
He said the legalization of cannabis doesn’t change the obligation of employees to be fit to work.
“There is zero tolerance for being impaired in any way. That’s always been the case and it will continue to be the case,” Garneau told reporters on Parliament Hill Monday.
Federal aviation regulations currently bar all pilots from operating a flight if they are “unfit to perform properly” their duties. The rules specifically spell out that “no person shall act as a crew member of an aircraft … while using any drug that impairs the person’s faculties to the extent that the safety of the aircraft or of persons on board the aircraft is endangered in any way.”
In an advisory to the aviation community issued last week, senior Transport Canada officials warned about the lingering effects of cannabis and the potential risks.
“Cannabis use can cause immediate impairment but also causes longer-lasting impairment that may not be obvious to the user or to the people around them,” Nicholas Robinson, director general, Transport Canada civil aviation, and Francois Collins, the associate director general, wrote in a joint letter.
The letter said that cannabis — like narcotics, muscle relaxants, and anti-depressants — can cause impairment that can “affect the judgment and actions of members of a flight crew.
“Impairment caused by cannabis use is a serious issue for Transport Canada given its potential to threaten aviation safety,” it said.
Other transport sectors are grappling with the new regime. CN said Monday that its existing zero tolerance drug and alcohol policy — that covers all employees and work locations — would apply to legalized cannabis too.
“The policy applies to any substance, legal or illegal, that can cause impairment, including alcohol and cannabis. Impairment at work can have catastrophic consequences,” Patrick Waldron said in an email.
Railways have not gone as far as the airlines and banned workers from using marijuana outright. But unions representing those workers will be watching to see how companies apply their new policies, said Christopher Monette, of Teamsters Canada, which represents 12,000 workers in the rail industry.
“I can promise you that any employer who attempts to impose such a restriction on our members will face fierce opposition from our union. We will also fight any employer who attempts to institute random drug testing,” Monette said.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier