The state and federal marijuana policy conflict is creating a “litigious environment” for the trucking industry and contributing to the challenges of a major labor shortage, the head of the American Trucking Association (ATA) told Congress on Wednesday.
During a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. Michael Bost (R-IL) asked ATA President Chris Spear about how much the state-level legalization movement is impacting the trucking sector, particularly as it concerns drug testing requirements.
Spear said that it was an issue that “keeps me up at night,” emphasizing his concern about impaired driving and the legal liability for the industry if a person gets into an accident under the influence.
“We’re regulated by the federal government. We cannot have anyone impaired using marijuana or any other narcotic operating this equipment,” he said. “So this channel conflict between the federal rules and the states allowing—this ambiguity is creating a litigious environment, and we’re caught right in the middle of it.”
“Somebody’s got to step up to the plate and put safety first. Want to smoke weed at home? Smoke weed at home. If it’s legal, fine,” he said. “Do not get behind the wheel of an 80,000-pound vehicle. We need to have strong standards, and we need to enforce the law.”
At the same time, he said that the issue is “tough,” because there’s a 78,000-worker deficit in the trucking sector and he wants to incentivize people to apply. “This is an issue that, I pose to you all, we’ve got to work on.”
Spear didn’t explicitly acknowledge the challenges resulting from federal drug screening requirements for truckers, but that appears to be a major contributing factor to the labor shortage—not people wanting to drive while impaired but failing drug tests that can detect THC metabolites for weeks or months after a person consumes.
Tens of thousands of commercial truckers are testing positive for marijuana as part of the federally mandated screenings, recent data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) shows.
In 2022 alone, 40,916 truckers tested positive for inactive THC metabolites. The number increased by 32 percent compared to 2021. And a large fraction of truckers who’ve tested positive haven’t returned to the sector.
Last year, DOT reiterated that the workforce it regulates is prohibited from using marijuana and will continue to be tested for THC, regardless of state cannabis policy. However, the department issued a notice in 2020 stating that it would not be testing drivers for CBD.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) sent a letter to the head of DOT last year, emphasizing that the agency’s policies on drug testing truckers and other commercial drivers for marijuana are unnecessarily costing people their jobs and contributing to supply chain issues.
The department did propose a new drug testing policy last year that could have significant implications for workers who use marijuana off the job. Current DOT policy mandates urine testing, but it recommended that testing of oral saliva be added as an alternate option.
Depending on frequency of use, THC is generally detectable in saliva anywhere from one to 24 hours after use, in contrast to weeks or months for urine-based tests.
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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.
Last year, a coalition of more than two dozen congressional Democrats filed bill on promoting workplace investment to combat climate change, and they want to boost the workforce nationwide by protecting people in legal marijuana states from being penalized due to federal drug testing policies.
Meanwhile, a senator sent a letter to DOT last year seeking an update on that status of a federal report into research barriers that are inhibiting the development of a standardized test for marijuana impairment on the roads. The department is required to complete the report by November 2023 under a large-scale infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed.
Experts and advocates have emphasized that evidence isn’t clear on the relationship between THC concentrations in blood and impairment.
A study published in 2019, for example, concluded that those who drive at the legal THC limit—which is typically between two to five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood—were not statistically more likely to be involved in an accident compared to people who haven’t used marijuana.
Separately, the Congressional Research Service in 2019 determined that while “marijuana consumption can affect a person’s response times and motor performance…studies of the impact of marijuana consumption on a driver’s risk of being involved in a crash have produced conflicting results, with some studies finding little or no increased risk of a crash from marijuana usage.”
Another study from last year found that smoking CBD-rich marijuana had “no significant impact” on driving ability, despite the fact that all study participants exceeded the per se limit for THC in their blood.