Tens of thousands of commercial truckers tested positive for marijuana as part of federally mandated screenings, data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) shows. And a significant portion of those truckers have declined to return to work, contributing to a labor shortage.
In 2022 alone, 40,916 truckers tested positive for inactive THC metabolites, which can stay in a person’s system for weeks or months after use and do not reflect active impairment. The number increased by 32 percent compared to 2021.
Data from DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) shows that, since 2020, more than 100,000 truckers tested positive for cannabis, as Transport Topics first reported. Marijuana was by far the most common banned substance to come up in the drug screenings.
Overall, there have been approximately 166,000 people who tested positive for some prohibited substance since 2020, according to a report that FMCSA’s Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse published last week. There is an option for those truckers to enter a “return-to-work” process that would require another drug test; however, the data shows that a large fraction of people are not taking the opportunity.
About 91,000 of those 166,000 truckers who didn’t pass the drug screening have not enrolled in the process yet.
This would be problematic from an economic standpoint in any industry, but it’s especially troubling in the transportation sector, which has been facing a significant labor shortage.
“The Transportation Department’s reliance on this outdated technology and upon these discriminatory policies is out of step with reality and is directly contributing to the trucking shortage crisis,” NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in a blog post.
“Suspicionless marijuana testing in the workplace is not now, nor has it ever been, an evidence-based policy. Rather, this discriminatory practice is a holdover from the zeitgeist of the 1980s ‘war on drugs,’” he said. “But times have changed; attitudes have changed, and in many places, the marijuana laws have changed. It is time for workplace policies to adapt to this new reality and to cease punishing employees for activities they engage in during their off-hours that pose no workplace safety threat.”
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.
Meanwhile in other drug testing developments, the Air Force is granting far more marijuana waivers to recruits than it expected after launching a pilot program that’s meant to give more leniency to would-be service members amid the state legalization movement.
The program launched last year, authorizing the branch to grant waivers to recruits who test positive for THC metabolites during their initial drug screening and giving them 90 days before they’re retested. Previously, Air Force candidates who tested positive would be automatically barred from joining.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released guidance to federal agency drug program coordinators in 2019 that outlined concerns about THC turning up in CBD products and causing failed drug tests. The agency issued an updated warning in 2020 after several more states voted to legalize marijuana.
The nation’s largest union representing federal employees adopted a resolution last year in support of marijuana legalization and calling for an end to policies that penalize federal workers who use cannabis responsibly while they’re off the clock in states where it is legal.
A federal labor report from last year indicates that drug testing rates at U.S. workplaces have fallen considerably over the past quarter-century, as states began ending marijuana prohibition—and the data offers a glance what types of industries are screening workers for drugs the most and the least. As could be expected, transportation workers were among the most likely to be screened.
At the state level, Washington lawmakers recently filed a bill that would bar employers in the state from discriminating against most job applicants for off-duty marijuana use or for testing positive for non-psychoactive THC metabolites.