Cheek and Bong

Yes, a clear pun referring to comedic stoners Cheech and Chong, and I must admit their humor never particularly worked for me. The “cheek” I am alluding to is one that should not be turned – a Christian idiom referenced in the Sermon on the Mount, often used as a phrase to embarrass bullies. And there are some bullies I want to embarrass.

In the recent UK general election, the venerated BBC was vilified by both major political parties for the way they reported issues, one commentator saying that the broadcaster was clearly doing their job if both sides were critical and offended. So if I am doing my job I will stir up some emotions out there – healthy, open debate is good for society; intransigence and belligerence are not.

My topic? Mary Jane, weed, Ganja, airplane (thought that would get your attention), the magic dragon. Marijuana. Cannabis. The word marijuana more correctly refers to preparations from the cannabis plant that contain high levels of tetrahydrocannabinoid, or “THC,” the group of compounds that affect one’s psyche. Some say the name came from a contraction of the Spanish name “Maria Juana” (Mary Jane); others, that it is a contraction of the same Semitic root word that led to naming another herb, marjoram. While the derivation of the name is up for debate, what is not is how much contention this humble plant has provoked.

Now legal for medical purposes in 33 states and for recreational use in 11 for adults over 21 years of age, the plant’s exploitation dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, and has a long and storied history in the USA. Present before European settlers arrived, hemp was such an important crop that in 1619 the Virginia lawmakers demanded it be grown on every farm, and in the Old Dominion, as well as Pennsylvania and Maryland, it was accepted as currency. The fibers could be used to make cloth and rope, many old masters were painted on hemp canvas, and Ben Franklin printed on hemp paper. During the Civil War, the USS Constitution, Old Ironsides, was used as a training vessel and she was fitted with hemp rigging. The stuff was everywhere.

The early part of the 20th century saw two events pivotal to our current societal attitudes to the plant and the psychoactive attributes of marijuana. First, with the advent of prohibition, righteous lawmakers were looking for other targets to attack, and given marijuana use was more prevalent among migrant workers from Mexico and within the African American community, it was easy to demonize the drug and, by association, those seen to use it. Further, the development of new fibers by American industry, and the increasing demand for paper for newsprint, books and magazines, brought focus on cheap hemp as a threat to corporate growth. Propaganda was rife including the scurrilous Reefer Madness, which like most powerful propaganda was wildly inaccurate. This all culminated with Harry Anslinger’s Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 – interestingly, prior to the repeal of prohibition in 1933, he was not an advocate of controlling the drug but turned into an almost fanatical campaigner against it.

So why am I dumping this historical perspective on you? And what does this have to do with pilots? Simple really. Every year a number of aviation accidents are found to involve alcohol and we have all heard the stories – rare but true – of airline pilots turning up for work worse for wear. This is obviously unforgivable. With the increasing availability of cannabis products across the USA, be very clear, they are incompatible with flying an airplane. As even minute doses of cannabinoids can be detected days after last use, take extreme care even being around cannabis. After a recent day in LA that included a walk on Venice Beach (see “Getting Stoned,” AOPA Pilot, February 2019) and attending a rock concert, people were smoking weed at both. Had one taken a drug test, even from environmental exposure, it might prove positive which is, of course, reportable. Recall The Hollies’ song? Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe...

Many drugs developed for legitimate medical uses are abused – we all know about amphetamines, morphine and oxycodone – but these are medications that can help those who need them. Marijuana has been shown to be helpful in addressing several medical conditions and I, for one, would hate to see patient access limited by stringently held political views. To provide some balance, alcohol is way more dangerous and is much more likely to lead to addictive behaviors as a “gateway” drug, yet it is freely available to any adult in every state.

One comedian stated that if people used cannabis, the worse things that would happen are that traffic would move very slowly and sales of chips and Grateful Dead albums would soar. Just to be clear, I am certainly not advocating widespread drug use – marijuana is harmful to the developing brain, inhaling any form of smoke is bad for you, and altering consciousness is generally not conducive to a productive and fulfilling life. However, I want factual debates about topics, not hyperbole and vitriol. Cannabis is here to stay. Let’s make sure as aviators we stay safe and that as caregivers and future patients, we have access to the best treatments possible. As for the social debate, let’s also keep that civil, and not have an uncivil war.

Jonathan Sackier
Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.

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