Testing truckers

Zero-tolerance drug screenings are exacerbating driver shortage

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The U.S. is currently short between 65,000 and 80,000 truck drivers, according to the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), affecting supply chains and, in turn, increasing prices for consumers. 

Truck drivers are subject to zero-tolerance drug policies, enforced with screening tests that identify the presence of marijuana up to 30 days after use. A report from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse revealed that between 2020-2022, there were nearly 154,000 positive drug tests in the industry: 57% of those were for cannabis, and many resulted in the suspension or revocation of a commercial driver’s license (CDL). 

ATRI points to the prohibition of cannabis use by CDL holders as a major disincentive for keeping drivers in the industry. The organization argues that loosening the restrictions on cannabis use could make the industry more attractive to a new generation, widening the potential labor pool.

Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for Marijuana Legalization (NORML) agrees with both points.
He says that truckers are walking away from their jobs in droves as a direct result of drug testing policies that are “discriminatory and counterproductive.” 

“In all, more than 150,000 licensed drivers have left the profession in recent years because of these zero-tolerance workplace drug testing policies,” Armentano wrote in a recent op-ed for NORML. 

Current cannabis screening tests do not identify if a driver was under the influence on the job. Rather, they indicate if someone has been exposed to or used cannabis at any time in the last 30 days. Even the Justice Department has openly acknowledges that, as a 1992 report put it, a positive cannabis drug test “does not indicate abuse or addiction; recency, frequency, or amount of use; or impairment.”

As a result, many truck drivers are refusing to take drug tests. FMCSA reported a nearly 40% increase in drug test refusals in 2023. That might cost a driver their job, but at least they won’t have their CDL suspended or revoked if the test comes back positive. 

These drug testing policies were implemented in the 1980s, and Armentano says it’s time for them to change. Surveys show that truckers agree: ATRI’s report revealed that 72.4% of licensed drivers support “loosening” cannabis laws and testing policies, while another 66.5% believe cannabis should be legalized outright.

States like California and New York and a handful of companies have implemented policies that protect workers from being fired just because of failed drug tests. 

Cannabis is recreationally legal in 24 states, but most don’t have protective policies in place. Even if they do, a driver could still have their CDL suspended or revoked until they can complete a “return-to-duty” process following a positive drug test. That requires the driver to test negative for THC before getting back behind the wheel of a rig.

Armentano argues that it’s time for the government to update these “antiquated marijuana testing regulations in accordance with cannabis’ rapidly changing cultural and legal status.”

Part of the report from ATRI included a survey of 3,302 respondents, 95.5% of whom currently held a CDL and 4.5% who had previously. The survey concluded with a text box asking for any final comments on the topic. 

One respondent wrote, “FMCSA should require a marijuana impairment test instead of the current marijuana use test. A test showing that someone used marijuana at some point, somewhere is absurdly pointless. It reveals nothing at all about the person that is relevant to operating a commercial vehicle.” 

Some technologies test for cognitive and motor impairment instead of the presence of THC in the body. Those tests, Amentano says, are far more accurate for determining impairment on the job. 

With the current driver shortage forecasted by the American Truckers Association to reach a record high in 2024, ATRI’s report indicates that changing the drug testing policies for America’s truck drivers, and/or legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis at a federal level, could help retain drivers already in the industry and attract new ones as well. 

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