Air travel in the post–9/11 era was fraught with anxiety, and a concomitant pharmaceutical remedy for said anxiety: benzodiazepines, often prescribed by doctors for those who had a fear of flying. Recently, anxious travelers have been turning to a new, natural alternative: Cannabidiol, also known as CBD, which is a chemical in the cannabis plant that reputedly makes users feel more relaxed without the psychoactive effects of marijuana's other chemicals.
Drop into a dispensary in a state in which marijuana is legal, and you are likely to find CBD chews or oil marketed as travel anxiety treatments. For those who live in states where marijuana is technically illegal, the rapid decriminalization of the drug have made it more accessible; some states, including New Mexico, have not legalized marijuana but can sell CBD derivatives under certain circumstances.
Monique Lewis, who lives in New York City, told Salon she uses a brand called Chilyo — a skin serum infused with Cannabidiol — on her earlobes and eyes to calm her anxiety before traveling.
“While the actual thought of flying itself doesn’t bother me, I worry [about] reaching the airport on time, whether the plane will be crowded or not, and if I’ll arrive on time,” she said in an email. “The lobe and eye serum ... immediately relaxes me and calms down my anxiety.”
Before using the CBD serum, Lewis said she would have a drink before flying to calm her nerves. Now, she takes the CBD serum before leaving for the airport, and takes an Uber or Lyft. She said when she usually can start to feel the effects while in transit to the airport.
Sherri Maher, the Vice President of Operations for Cannaisseur Brands, told Salon in an email she started taking a CBD tincture as a natural alternative to Xanax. After experiencing a rough flight in 2009, she developed an extreme case of anxiety any time she thought about flying.
“I started taking a lot anti-anxiety medications just to get to my destination and eventually quit traveling all together,” she said. “I did not fly for a span of seven years.”
Within two weeks of trying the CBD tincture, she says she felt a difference in her overall anxiety level.
“I soon eliminated all anti-anxiety meds and only use tinctures or ingestibles with high levels of CBD and low levels of THC,” she added.
But taking CBD to ease travel anxiety comes with its own set of challenges. Since the possession of marijuana and cannabis-infused products, such as CBD oil, chews, or serum, is illegal under federal law, it is technically not legal to fly with those products — even if travelers depart from an airport in a state in which such cannabis extracts are legal.
“TSA officers are required to report any suspected violations of law, including possession of marijuana and cannabis infused products,” Jenny Burke, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spokesperson told Salon in an email. “TSA’s screening procedures are focused on security and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers.”
She said that TSA security officers do not generally search for marijuana or other illegal drugs. “In the event a substance that appears to be marijuana or cannabis infused product is observed during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer," she clarified. What happens then is up to local law enforcement and dependent on state law.
Despite widespread popular adoption of CBD as a non-prescription anti-anxiety medication, the science is still fuzzy on the relationship between CBD and anxiety. Some researchers have found positive correlations while others are skeptical, as the New York Times noted in an article on the topic.
Dr. Mary Clifton, an internal medicine doctor in New York City, said she did not believe there were data around CBD and travel anxiety and fear of flying specifically, but said there is data that shows its promise to managing anxiety, PTSD, and difficulty sleeping. The F.D.A. has only approved one drug with CBD, which is for reducing seizures in children with two forms of epilepsy.
“It should help people to relax,” she told Salon. However, Clifton noted dosages had yet to be established. “The question is, how much [do] they need?” she said.