- A new federal law is making it impossible for truck drivers to responsibly enjoy marijuana.
- It’s a misguided attempt on the industry’s part to promote safety.
- Promoting better training would be wiser.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
When it comes to recruiting, kids these days are perhaps the most vexing for trucking big wigs. Millennials and Gen Z just don’t seem to want to become truck drivers. The most recent report from the American Trucking Associations on the driver shortage pointed to the “relatively high average age” of a truck driver (a whopping 46 years old) as one of the foremost reasons for the industry’s labor woes. (The ATA is the industry group that represents America’s larger trucking companies.)
There seems to be some cognitive dissonance among these 18-wheeler executives, though.
In 2020, the industry celebrated the implementation of a law that would scare off the 22% of Americans under 30 who smoke marijuana. That’s the drug and alcohol clearinghouse, in which all truck drivers who have failed any sort of drug test must be listed in a federal database so that other trucking companies don’t rehire them. (They’re able to clear their names if they go through a process that includes meeting with a substance abuse counselor.)
The hope is to get drivers who abuse harmful substances away from 80,000-pound vehicles barreling down the highway. What’s actually happened is that the majority of those positive drug tests have involved marijuana. Some 73,000 drivers total have been booted from the road due to positive drug tests of any ilk, according to the most recent federal data.
It’s an antiquated position. Some 68% of Americans believe marijuana should be fully legal, and 70% believe consuming it is morally acceptable. Today, 18 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized cannabis for recreational use — and the majority of states have legalized it medically. Of course, it’s still federally classified as a Schedule I drug, so onto the drug test it goes.
There’s quite a bit to cover here, so here’s what you’re in for:
- Marijuana is far, far less harmful than the other drugs in the clearinghouse
- Employment experts say marijuana users are not likely to show up to work high
- Things like faulty brakes or speeding cause far more accidents than drug use
- Ultimately, the industry’s interest in safety regulations aren’t always as rosy as they appear on the surface
Marijuana is less harmful than cocaine or meth, but trucking is lumping them in together
Of the 80,098 positive drug tests conducted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which presides over our nation’s fair commercial drivers, 42,534 identified marijuana. Cocaine (11,297) and methamphetamine (7,371) distantly followed. This data, which you can explore in more depth here, runs from January 6, 2020 to June 1, 2021. Some drivers tested positive for more than one substance — though the feds didn’t tell us the overlap in that release of data.
Marijuana is not perfectly safe — ranked by damage to user and society, an oft-cited UK study from 2010 deemed the drug just below amphetamines like Adderall, which can be highly addictive. And there are many unknowns associated with long-term, heavy marijuana use.
Frustratingly, there’s no way to test someone on whether or not they’re impaired by cannabis, and some experts say a THC “Breathalyzer” test may never be feasible. That forces companies to measure marijuana intake by urine tests. But the drug can stay in your body for up to 30 days. That means folks who drive trucks have to abstain from marijuana entirely — as they can expect random tests every year or so, per the new federal clearinghouse rules.
Drug experts agree that marijuana is less harmful than meth, heroin, or cocaine, as Vox’s German Lopez wrote. But the folks behind the clearinghouse still insist on treating marijuana the same as these highly-addictive, illegal substances.
It’s not clear how randomly booting drivers who smoke weed is going to make the highways considerably safer. More likely, this new clearinghouse will winnow further who wants to become or stay a truck driver, a problem for an industry with a turnover rate as high as 94%.
‘It’s not like people are showing up high to work’
There’s the Attorney Mark Goldstein, who is a partner at New York City-based Reed Smith, said a worker who randomly tests positive for a drug that stays in your system for a while (like cannabis) is not likely going to be stoned at work.
“If you’re drug testing an employee at the start of employment or randomly, the likelihood that they come into work impaired is probably low,” Goldstein told me over the phone. (I should mention Goldstein represents employers when they call up saying they’ve got a worker with a positive drug test.)
As Michele Siekerka, president and CEO of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said to NJ.com about all workers who consume cannabis: “It’s not like people are showing up high to work.”
Obviously, much like a trucker abusing alcohol while driving, anyone caught driving high — whether by police or their employer — should face severe consequences. But a urine test surfacing marijuana does not mean that the trucker in question is driving impaired — it just means they’ve ingested cannabis as long as 30 days ago.
Alcohol multiples the risk for a fatal car crash by 13.6, while marijuana has a 1.8 multiplier effect, according to one Columbia University study. And research suggests using a cell phone while driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving. We’re not banning truck drivers from drinking alcohol or using their cell phones while they’re off duty. Why is weed different?
Poorly designed safety regulations
There’s a certain romantic quality to being a truck driver. The open road, seeing America in its jaw-slacking wonder, no boss mouth-breathing next to you, podcasts for days, and, most crucially, access to thrilling truck driver Facebook group drama.
And that’s all true — but a wave of new regulations are frustrating a lot of drivers I’ve spoken to. There’s a strong perception that the folks making these laws don’t understand what it’s like to be a driver. As one driver with 6.5 million accident-free miles commented to me recently: “We had a lot of fun in the early days. But today, gosh, I don’t know, they want to put you out of business.”
Regulations are making many current drivers want to quit. The ones around marijuana could even deter many people from becoming a truck driver.
Let’s say I am a 20-something who occasionally indulges in marijuana. I know that marijuana impairs my driving for at least three hours, so I make sure not to do it when I know I may need to work in that timeframe, but it also lasts in my system for up to a month. Would I pick a job in which I could get booted at any moment because I smoke? Or would I work at, say, Amazon, which just nixed cannabis testing?
The insistence on knowing whether an employee uses marijuana follows a disturbing trend in which working people are being monitored more and more. Some trucking companies are putting driver-facing cameras in their cabins to watch their employees.
Bureaucrats and business executives say watching a trucker’s every move is to promote better safety. (It’s notable, of course, that one study from the University of Michigan suggests passenger cars, not 18-wheelers, are responsible for up to 70% of all fatal crashes between semi-trucks and cars.)
But if we’re really interested in safer truck drivers, we wouldn’t be targeting illegal drugs. Bad driving and bad roads are a bigger issue.
Illegal drugs were coded as causes for 2% of all truck-car accidents, according to a Department of Transportation study. Far more quotidian factors proved more dangerous: brake problems (a factor assigned in 29% of crashes); speeding (23%); unfamiliarity with roadways (22%); and roadway issues (20%). These could be addressed with better infrastructure and training, but neither factors are cheap fixes.
Unfortunately, the trucking executives who proclaim to love safety are also promoting a bill that would introduce those under 21 to interstate trucking. The idea is that this will make trucking appealing to kiddos again — never mind that experts disagree, and that those aged 18 or 19 have a crash rate that’s twice as high as those in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.
Why is trucking going in on drug testing now?
Amid what Goldstein described to me as a trend away from drug testing among non-trucking employers, I wanted to learn more about why freight was suddenly embracing a federal database. So, I chatted with Craig Fuller, CEO and founder of media company FreightWaves, to learn more about what happened here.
The clearinghouse was a long time coming. It went into a larger transportation bill signed into law in 2012. It wasn’t until 2017 that the law was codified, and then in 2020 it was finally enforced.
The endless number of stakeholders gummed up the works, Fuller said. When writing such rules, everyone in the $800 billion trucking industry chimes in — there are independent drivers, major employers, insurance companies, equipment manufacturers, and so on.
Fuller also argued the database is actually quite an obvious idea. Before, there was no way of knowing whether a driver you just hired was already fired for cocaine by a previous employer.
He sketched it out as such:
“Let’s say, Rachel, that you were driving a truck and failed a drug test. Let’s just say it’s pot. The fleet is going to fire you. So guess what you do, you get fired. You’re gonna go down the street and go work at Jim Buck Trucking and get a job there. And you drive along a year later, you get tested again and boom, you get the boot. You leave that carrier. You go to the next one.
“The idea of the clearinghouse was that all of these fleets know who the drivers that have had incidents and issues. The problem is, it wasn’t very (easy) to get access to that information until the clearinghouse came along.”
Again, it’s not just about safety
Fuller pointed to another, perhaps more sinister reason for the clearinghouse.
Big trucking companies, along with a genuine interest in safety, may be particularly interested in pushing drug testing because it could root out the industry’s hundreds of thousands of small carriers.
A few “mega-carriers” dominate trucking, and their safety standards may be so stringent that they test hair follicles for illegal substances. But the theoretical Big Rachel’s Trucking, which employs only myself and a few buddies, is probably is not using top-of-the-line drug testing standards.
Big Rachel’s is not a concern in itself to these publicly-traded giants. The problem is that there’s 183,916 trucking companies with fewer than six trucks just like Big Rachel’s — and we dominate 89% of the industry. Collectively, we’re Big Trucking’s biggest competitor, and we often don’t run on the same rules. Now, thanks to the new federal database, we’re all on the same page.
Let’s think about the real deterrents to safety instead
Fuller said that being less lenient on marijuana makes sense, but should be coupled with more accurate testing to detect non-cannabis drugs. Namely, he said we ought to focus more resources to hair follicle testing, which would be the most precise in rooting out addled drivers.
“I don’t have a problem at all with drivers smoking a joint,” Fuller said. “I have a big issue with someone on heroin or on prescription opioids or meth driving down the highway next to me or my kids.”
And one more thing. People who make a living wage, lead a healthy lifestyle, and have strong social networks are going to be happier — and better at their jobs. It’s common sense. Unfortunately, that’s not reachable for many of our nation’s two million truck drivers.
What do you think about testing truck drivers (or any employees) for marijuana? Would you like to apply for a role at Big Rachel’s Trucking*? Send me an email at email@example.com.
*Big Rachel’s Trucking is 100%, completely, utterly not real.