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Cannabis confusion: Thousands of truckers taken off the job amid supply chain woes

The Biden administration is vowing to put more commercial truck drivers on the road to help ease the supply chain snarls plaguing the economy.

But one obstacle of the government’s own making is hampering that goal — a federal ban on marijuana use that has sidelined tens of thousands of truckers.

Washington’s zero-tolerance approach to weed has swept up drivers who lit up only when off-duty, as well as those who consumed hemp derivatives such as CBD oil that are advertised as non-psychoactive, according to industry experts and court documents. Truckers who drive cross-country also face a morass of confusing state regulations, as 18 states have legalized recreational marijuana use and another 37 allow medical use.

Another complication: The only accepted roadside tests for marijuana use can produce positive results more than a month after the person smoked or consumed it, unlike commonly used breathalyzer tests for alcohol impairment, which give a snapshot of the moment the test was conducted.

Paul Enos, CEO of the Nevada Trucking Association, a state where recreational marijuana use is legal, said tests that capture weeks-old use force people out of the industry who are not necessarily a danger on the roads.

“It’s an issue for our industry when you look at the number of people who are no longer driving,” Enos said.

He added that removing drug-using drivers from the roads can help prevent impaired driving. Still, “We would all benefit from having a reasonable impairment test that is not going to … cause our highways to be less safe.”

And drivers who test positive find themselves in a Catch-22: Many trucking companies will immediately fire drivers with a positive drug test, but the process of returning to the road requires an employer sponsor.

All this comes as President Joe Biden and his appointees, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, are trying to bring more truckers into the workforce, for example by expanding apprenticeship programs that make it easier to obtain a commercial driver’s license and promoting opportunities for women and veterans to enter the field. Their aim is to get goods out of ports and warehouses faster, lessening the supply chain crunch that has contributed to inflation and shortages of certain goods.

Sean Garney, co-director of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, a firm that advises trucking clients on rules and regulations, said the industry loses drivers to other jobs where marijuana use isn’t a potential career-killer.

“But we’re bound by federal rules that classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug,” Garney said.

The Biden administration hasn’t endorsed relaxing federal marijuana laws, but the Transportation Department is soliciting comments on a new standard for marijuana tests that would zero in on recent use. That process is still in the early stages.

The trucking industry acknowledges that the rules are confusing but argues that prohibitions on marijuana use are not a huge issue because the vast majority of drivers don’t test positive. It says relaxing the testing rules would result in more impaired drivers on the road.

“We often have to explain to members that things like CBD oil, which is all over the place, could cause you to test positive,” said Andrew King, a research analyst with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents the interests of independent truck drivers. “But it’s better to be safe than sorry. You have a federal license so you have a higher standard.”

Others say drug testing is worsening the industry’s workforce problems.

“We’re excluding a significant portion of that trucker industry,” said Chris Harvey, Wells Fargo’s head of equity strategy, during a conference in February.


Many drivers never come back

Federal rules have long prohibited cannabis use by people with commercial drivers’ licenses, even in states where it’s legal. License-holders who test positive for cannabis or any other prohibited drug can’t drive again until they finish an evaluation process that can take months or longer.

Of 126,043 drug violations by commercial drivers reported between January 2020 and this March, 56 percent were for marijuana, according to a DOT drug-testing clearinghouse that went live two years ago. All resulted in the driver being taken off the road temporarily.

Many simply don’t come back.

Only a quarter of the 119,113 drivers with at least one drug violation since January 2020 have completed the process to return to the road. Of the nearly 90,000 drivers now prohibited from driving, more than 67,000 have not started the return-to-duty process. Many have left the profession, Garney said.

“You need an employer sponsor. If you’re not employed you can’t enter the system,” Garney said. “Some employers have second chance policies, others don’t. Once this happens the drivers, per the rules, really have no recourse to get back into the industry.”

That’s bad news for a field that has become a weak link in the U.S. supply chain, adding to the difficulties in moving goods from ports and factories. Truck drivers already face other burdens that make the job unattractive, including long hours behind the wheel and abundant unpaid time spent waiting to pick up a payload.

Meanwhile, employers who fear litigation are wary of hiring drivers with a positive marijuana test on their record, even if they have been cleared to return to duty. Members of the Nevada Trucking Association are “thinking about lawsuits every day,” Enos said, citing the proliferation of truck accident attorneys in recent years.


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