Image: James Brey
Legalized Marijuana Street Sign

Trucking wants to take marijuana head-on

Oct. 9, 2019
More Americans have access to legal weed than ever before. ATA wants to stress highway safety and the need for a federal policy on this emerging issue.

Editor’s note: This the first part of a three-part series on legal marijuana’s emerging effects on trucking and transportation. Read the second part here.

SAN DIEGO — More than a quarter of Americans live in a jurisdiction that allows legal marijuana. Weed’s growing popularity in the U.S. is an increasing and complicated concern for the trucking industry.

American Trucking Associations is looking to take the lead in how U.S. businesses adapt to legal weed, noting that there is more to learn about its effects. The ATA Board of Directors created new policies this week that calls for a common-sense approach to liberalizing marijuana laws — in the name of safety. And since every state has different cannabis laws, ATA wants the federal government to change its approach. 

“We’ve got to get the federal people involved in this so we have uniformed impairment rules across our nation,” Harold Sumerford Jr., CEO of J&M Tank Lines, told a luncheon crowd at ATA’s Management Conference & Exhibition. 

Sumerford is co-chairman of ATA’s newly formed Controlled Substances, Health & Wellness Working Group, which is tasked with tackling marijuana’s effect on trucking. Co-chairman Paul Enos, CEO of the Nevada Trucking Association, said ATA’s goals are to protect carriers’ rights to have a drug-free workplace, to be able to test their employees and to limit liability. 

“But we also need to be sure that when we get more data and more information on this, we can change too,” Enos said. “Because the question is: Is someone impaired if they tested positive for marijuana? Because it stays in your system for 30 days. That’s the crux of the issue, right? You may not be impaired. I know if I had seven or eight whiskeys the other night, (I’d be) feeling pretty rough the next day — but we’d know, physiologically, 24 hours later, I am going to be fine. We don’t know where that is in marijuana and I think that is the biggest challenge that we have today.”

Twenty states have introduced legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, to join the first 11 states, the District of Columbia and Canada that are already there. That includes Illinois, which was the first state to legalize it through the legislative process. Political winds continue to blow in favor of legalization as opinion polls get higher on weed. 

ATA President and CEO Chris Spear said it’s important for the federal government to consider marijuana’s impact on America’s roads. “As an industry that operates in all 50 states and across national borders, we need all levels of government to help us keep our roads and drivers drug-free.”

The ATA has been pushing for the government to allow — and use — alternative drug testing methods, such as hair-testing. It also has back the federal mandate to develop a drug and alcohol clearhinghouse. FMCSA recently opened up registration for the clearinghouse ahead of the Jan. 6 implementation date for the new regulation.

On the final day of the management conference here in southern California, ATA endorsed four specific new policies and recommendations as the U.S. adapts to a world with more weed:

  • ATA says employers need to retain the right to test for marijuana if they determine that use could adversely affect safety;
  • Federal restrictions on marijuana research need to be lifted and more research is needed on marijuana’s impact on impairment, especially in conjunction with other substances;
  • ATA is backing development oral fluid testing and impairment standards;
  • It is also calling for the creation of a marijuana victim’s compensation fund — paid for by dispensaries, cultivators and manufacturers.

“An employee in certain states can use marijuana on the weekend, come to work on Monday, have a random drug test and lose his employment and his way to make a living,” Sumerford said. “Whether that is right or wrong in people’s minds, I think it’s something that’s got to be addressed because the problem’s coming (trucking's) way.”

In 2018, Nevada became the first state to enact employee protections for marijuana use. A sticky situation for the trucking industry as no state has a higher failure rate in federally-mandated drug tests than Nevada. New York City has a similar law. 

Enos expects this movement to protect recreational residents’ rights to spread across the country — depending on politics. For the first time since the early ‘90s, the Democrats took control of Nevada’s governor’s mansion, state Senate and Assembly this year.

“While it was an OK session for trucking — we actually did pretty well,” Enos said, “it was a great session for trial lawyers, deadbeats, stoners and felons.”

Nevada residents now cannot be denied employment if they test positive for marijuana in pre-employment screening. While the law does not apply to emergency responders and professional drivers, it increases the likelihood of impaired drivers on the road. “The argument was: Look, this is a legal substance, we can’t tell people what to do on their personal time.”

For trucking, it always comes back to safety. Enos said this push to liberalize marijuana laws led other industries in the state to look to trucking to lead on the issue. “Everybody looks to our industry to help us out on this,” he said. “It’s the Chamber, it’s the manufacturers, it’s the gaming industry in Nevada, saying we need trucking to step out in front of this because you guys have the best argument on safety. And safety really is the argument we need to focus on.”

And while trucking companies can work to deter their own drivers from using cannabis, it can’t stop other adults from indulging. 

“At every party that I go to in Reno, people 60 and above, are talking about what kind of marijuana they are doing,” Enos said. “They’re talking about what kind of creams they’re using, what kinds of gummies they’re using. What works for what ailments: backaches, neuropathy, arthritis.”

He said the issue needs federal involvement and more research. Since many police forces don’t separate marijuana-related crashes from other drugs, it is harder to understand the full impact of pot on the roads. 

“My wife and I always joke, driving in Reno, when someone is driving really slow on the freeway: Are they old or are they high? People compensate when they are stoned and driving,” Enos said. “And a lot of times they may not be involved in an accident — but they could be causing the accidents behind them.”

Editor’s note: This the first part of a three-part series on legal marijuana’s emerging effects on trucking and transportation. Read the second part here.

About the Author

Josh Fisher | Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Josh Fisher has been with FleetOwner since 2017, covering everything from modern fleet management to operational efficiency, artificial intelligence, autonomous trucking, regulations, and emerging transportation technology. He is based in Maryland. 

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