Federal regulations allow long-haul truck drivers to spend up to 11 hours a day behind the wheel, as part of a 14-hour shift. The maximum weight for a semi-truck with a loaded trailer on US roads is 80,000 pounds.
Obviously, nobody wants the person driving one these behemoths down the highway to be impaired in any way.
But should smoking a joint while off duty lead to being fired and effectively prevented from re-entering the industry? Because that’s what’s happening right now. In fact, it’s already sidelined tens of thousands of truckers at a profoundly challenging time for America’s supply chain.
Outdated rules got a lot worse in 2020
Outdated drug testing regulations were already an issue before the pandemic. Truckers were allowed to drink as much alcohol as they wanted, off duty, but cannabis use remained prohibited even in fully legal states.
The problem actually got worse in January 2020, just before the first pandemic lock-downs, when a new set of nationwide regulations went into effect. Those regs included a new registry that prevents drivers who’ve failed a drug test from getting another driving job without first completing an onerous reinstatement process.
According to a report from Stacker published earlier this year, drivers testing positive for THC in 2022 is on pace for a 32% increase over 2021. The headline: “Marijuana violations have taken more than 10,000 truckers off the road this year.”
Fortunately, one of the cannabis industry’s biggest supporters in Congress is sounding the alarm.
Cannabis Caucus vs. Transportation Department
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a member of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, is pressing the federal Department of Transportation to step up and amend the 2020 regulations.
“As the United States faces an unprecedented supply chain crisis, tens of thousands of commercial drivers are being disqualified from service due to past cannabis use,” Blumenauer wrote in a letter to Transportation officials. “These disqualifications deny people the right to earn a living, reduce the workforce when drivers are desperately needed, and penalize people of color and patients who legally use medical cannabis.”
According to the Department of Transportation’s Federal Drug & Alcohol Testing Regulations, anyone in possession of a Commercial Driver’s License must submit to the following types of drug test upon demand: Pre-Employment, Post-Accident, Random Testing, Reasonable Suspicion, Return-to-Duty, and Follow-Up.
“Once notified to report for testing, a CDL driver must report to the collection site immediately. DOT drug testing only recognizes urinalysis as a valid means for drug testing.”
Old drug tests don’t fit today’s conditions
What the guidelines don’t make clear is that—depending on a number of factors—a person taking a urine test can come up positive for THC a month (or even longer) after their last date of exposure. Which means responsible drivers who eat a weed gummy or take a dab on their day off can lose their livelihoods, including in states where cannabis is fully legal, despite never once driving while high.
If this happened to just one person, it would be a serious injustice. But a look at statistics recently released by the Department of Transportation show such incidents have reached critical levels.
In fact, enough truckers have been fired for failing cannabis tests to push the entire transportation industry to the brink, while greatly exasperating America’s intersectional problems of supply chain disruptions and soaring inflation.
Finding a solution
The American Trucking Association reports that the United States is currently operating with a shortage of 80,000 drivers.
“Your department acknowledges that outdated cannabis tests forced tens of thousands of drivers out of service in the last two years,” Blumenauer continued in his letter to the DOT. “The true impacts of this policy are likely greater, given that many people will self-select out of the profession knowing the drug testing requirements… The Department of Transportation’s current policies contribute to supply chain backlogs and delays in critical deliveries across the American economy.”
Drug testing aside, trucking and transportation has been seriously impacted by rising fuel prices, increased labor costs, and COVID-related supply chain disruptions. All of which make it significantly more difficult and expensive to bring goods to market in a timely manner. Which in turn adds to America’s skyrocketing inflation.
Fortunately, that dragging effect on the wider economy may be what it takes to get the federal government to re-examine those unfair drug testing protocols.
Saliva tests: a half-step improvement
Along with an increased emphasis on recruiting and training more drivers, the Department of Transportation recently solicited public comment on a proposed new policy that would replace urine tests with saliva tests.
Saliva tests cut the window for a potential positive THC result down from weeks to just 24 hours since last exposure. That’s still long enough to unfairly snag drivers who are no longer impaired, but would decrease such cases significantly.
The proposed new rules would also raise the threshold for a positive result to a “4 nanogram per milliliter screening test cutoff for THC,” which the DOT says would “detect use of marijuana while eliminating possibilities of positive tests resulting from passive exposure.”
Drivers caught in a Catch-22
While adjusting the drug testing program’s protocols would help reduce the number of drivers fired over cannabis use during off-hours going forward, that still leaves tens of thousands of unfairly targeted drivers stuck on the side of the road. And while technically there’s a program in place to get them reinstated, the process requires finding an employer to act as your sponsor.
Most employers have already instituted a policy to terminate any driver who fails a drug test, so a Catch-22 exists: You get fired for failing a drug test, and then have to find a new job that will help you get back on the road. But you can’t get hired because you’re not eligible to drive.
Even sympathetic employers may shy away from offering drivers a second chance because of potential litigation concerns should a reinstated driver on their payroll subsequently be involved in an accident. As a result, less than 25% of affected drivers return to the road. Most don’t even try.
As Rep. Blumenaeuer pointed out in his letter, an untold additional number of drivers have either left the profession voluntarily or decided not to join it rather than submit to such scrutiny.
And there’s another factor in the nation’s truck driver shortage: Labor competition.
Amazon is hiring, and not testing for THC
In September 2021, Bloomberg first reported that Amazon has been encouraging its delivery partners to openly advertise the fact that they no longer drug test drivers for cannabis.
In correspondence reviewed by Bloomberg, Amazon claimed that making this pledge boosted the number of job applicants by 400%, while testing for cannabis can reduce the number of applicants for the same job by up to 30%.
Amazon famously announced last year that it would stop testing its own employees for THC and begin lobbying Congress to legalize cannabis.
In fact, Amazon may offer a template for a more reasonable policy going forward: Targeting at-work impairment (from any source) rather than testing for legal off-duty consumption.
The company maintains a zero-tolerance policy for at-work impairment.
“If a delivery associate is impaired at work and tests positive post-accident or due to reasonable suspicion, that person would no longer be permitted to perform services for Amazon,” according to a statement.
That’s the country’s largest retailer and second-largest private employer making a distinction between legal, responsible cannabis use and being high on the road. Time will tell if the DOT can follow their lead.