June 8, 2023 Kyle Jaeger
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A strong majority of licensed truck drivers in the U.S. say that federal marijuana laws need to change, and most say that current cannabis testing policies for drivers are steering people away from the transportation sector amid a driver shortage, according to a new report.
With an estimated 65,000-driver deficit in the country, the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) carried out an analysis of driver marijuana testing policies that also included revealing survey data from drivers who say that the status quo needs to change.
“More than half of all positive trucking industry drug tests are for marijuana metabolite,” which can stay in a person’s systems for weeks after consuming, the report, published on Monday, says. Federal prohibition “has been highlighted as a potential disincentive for drivers to stay in the industry, and it has even been argued that loosening the restrictions on marijuana use would make the industry more attractive and widen the potential labor pool.”
Current federal law mandates that commercial drivers abstain from cannabis, subjecting them to various forms of drug screening, from pre-employment to randomized testing.
A survey component of ATRI’s report found that 72.4 percent of licensed drivers support “loosening” cannabis laws and testing policies. Another 66.5 percent said that marijuana should be federally legalized.
Another question found that 65.4 percent of motor carriers believe that current marijuana testing procedures should be replaced with methods that measure active impairment.
ATRI, noting that cannabis metabolites can be detected via drug testing long after someone is no longer intoxicated, said that while “current marijuana testing is likely effective at removing drivers who may work while impaired, it also likely removes drivers who previously used the drug but would not operate a truck while impaired.”
Although it’s not definitively known how many potential drivers avoided employment in the sector because of cannabis testing requirements, the survey showed that 50.2 percent of respondents said that “it is either very common or common to leave the industry” because of marijuana-related rules.
“Given their extensive driving experiences,” truck drivers were also asked whether they felt that highway safety had been “negatively impacted by legalized recreational marijuana.” The majority (55.4 percent) said that there was no impact.
Most drivers (65 percent) also agreed that drug testing policies for marijuana should be changed to focus on active impairment tests, rather than urine-based screenings that only detect inactive metabolites.
DOT recently finalized a rule permitting another alternative option: saliva-based testing. That could prevent people who casually use cannabis from being penalized for consuming weeks prior to a urine test. That’s because, depending on frequency of use, THC is generally detectable in saliva anywhere from one to 24 hours after use, according to the agency.
“There are two pathways the federal government could take in the near-term regarding marijuana, and both present challenges for the trucking industry,” the ATRI report says.
It could maintain federal prohibition. And if it does so, “the trucking industry will continue to have thousands of drivers annually placed in prohibited status and will lose many others to occupations that do not test for marijuana use.”
One benefit of the status quo, according to the institute, is that companies can continue to enforce zero-tolerance policies. Also, it could help resolve disputes resulting from conflicting state and federal policies.
“It is possible, however, that federal marijuana rules will evolve toward legalization and ultimately marijuana will be removed from the federal Schedule I designation,” the report says. “Any shift toward federal legalization would likely ease pressure on the industry’s driver shortage.”
“The central goal of industry drug testing efforts is highway safety. The current approach supports safety efforts, but also results in inefficiencies when drivers that do not present a safety issue are removed from the industry,” it says. “To ensure that the trucking industry remains safe and unimpaired, there are several actions that must be taken before any federal efforts to legalize marijuana commence.”
The report also noted that research into the impact of cannabis use on driving and highway safety is currently mixed, complicating rulemaking to address the issue. A 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) similarly found that evidence about cannabis’s ability to impair driving is inconclusive.
What is known, however, is that the transportation industry labor shortage is being significantly impacted by marijuana laws.
In 2022 alone, 40,916 truckers tested positive for inactive THC metabolites, data from DOT that was released earlier this year found. And as of May 1 of this year, 12,527 drivers have tested positive for cannabis in 2023, the agency reported this month.
Meanwhile, DOT also proposed guidance last year warning commercial drivers who use CBD products that they are doing so “at their own risk.” The proposed handbook update is meant to advise medical examiners as they carry out physical exams for commercial drivers whose jobs require interstate travel.
The handbook would also direct examiners to an earlier DOT notice stipulating that the department “requires testing for marijuana and not CBD” and provide other information about cannabis-related policy and compliance rules.
A newsletter from DOT’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) that was published last year included two sections on cannabis issues: one that again reminded employees that they’re barred from using marijuana and another that similarly warned that CBD products remain unregulated and could contain THC levels that are detectable in a drug test.
In a letter sent to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last year, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) argued that DOT’s overall cannabis testing policies are unnecessarily costing people their jobs and contributing to supply chain issues. He urged a review and administrative reform of the guidelines.
A top Wells Fargo analyst said last year that there’s one main reason for rising costs and worker shortages in the transportation sector: federal marijuana criminalization and resulting drug testing mandates that persist even as more states enact legalization.