Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ

More than two years after an emergency landing in Kansas led local authorities to discover cannabis-infused chocolate bars on his single-engine airplane, Utah resident Jeff Siegel’s challenge to the revocation of his pilot’s license sputtered Tuesday in a federal appeals court.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld a federal agency’s decision to revoke Siegel’s private pilot certificate. The unanimous panel, led by Judge David Sentelle, broadly rejected Siegel’s claim that regulators, including the National Transportation Safety Board, had failed to consider several “mitigating factors,” including the fact that the cannabis chocolate bars had been purchased in Colorado, one of several states that permit recreational marijuana use.

“This argument is factually incorrect,” Sentelle wrote. “The board explicitly considered these purported ‘mitigating factors,’ but simply did not agree that they warranted a lighter sanction.”

Sentelle said the federal regulation barring pilots from flying with cannabis products on their airplanes “does not distinguish between drugs transported for personal use and those intended for resale.” It made no difference, he wrote, that the cannabis products had been purchased in Colorado.

“Likewise, that the marijuana was purchased in Colorado does not change the fact that marijuana is illegal under federal law and in federal airspace. Although Siegel characterizes the board’s decision as a failure to consider these factors, it is more accurate to say that he is simply unhappy with the result of the NTSB’s consideration.”

Siegel was represented by Greg Winton of the Annapolis, Maryland-based Aviation Law Firm. Winton could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.

In October 2016, the engine of Siegel’s airplane failed almost immediately after takeoff, forcing him to land on a road in the small town of Iola, Kansas. Siegel and his sole passenger were not seriously injured. But in a bag onboard, authorities responding said they found three chocolate bars infused with cannabis, leading to problems of a different sort for Siegel.

Siegel was charged in Kansas with marijuana possession, but that charge dismissed. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration grappled with the proper punishment for Siegel, in an administrative process that was influenced by the tension between the federal prohibition on cannabis and state laws permitting medical or recreational use. Siegel was not alleged to have been under the influence of cannabis during his brief flight in October 2016.

Following an investigation of the incident, the acting FAA administration issued an emergency order in February 2018 revoking Siegel’s license. An in-house judge at the National Transportation Safety Board later lowered the sanction to a 90-day license suspension, noting that the cannabis-infused chocolate bars had been “purchased legally, apparently in Colorado” and that the bars were not being transported for commercial purposes.

On appeal, the NTSB revoked Siegel’s license. Defending the board’s decision, Justice Department lawyers argued in a court filing that the NTSB “rightly found it immaterial that the drugs might have been procured in Colorado,” stressing that cannabis remains illegal under federal law.” Justice Department lawyers also argued that Siegel’s punishment was consistent with the board’s precedent.

Siegel’s cannabis possession will not completely shut him out of the cockpit. Under federal rules, pilots are allowed to re-apply for license a year after the revocation date. Siegel pressed his case in the D.C. Circuit to avoid  through a full recertification process and having the revocation of his private pilot certificate on his record.


Read the D.C. Circuit’s ruling below:



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