When the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse published its first monthly report in June, it revealed that of the 18,860 drivers in “prohibited status” (they may not legally drive), marijuana was by far the most reported substance used—10,388 instances. More important, of this group, 15,682 drivers have not yet begun the Return-to-Duty (RTD) process so they can drive again. This suggests that some drivers may be choosing to use marijuana rather than drive.
"We agree this is a big problem, and many of those drivers might never complete the Return-to-Duty process," said Tom Moore, executive vice president of the National Private Truck Council. "Those drivers need to decide whether using marijuana is more important to them than working as a truck driver."
It's unclear if drivers are confused about the legality of marijuana use. It is lawful in 11 states for those over 21, and legal for medical use in 33 states. On the other hand, DOT rules are quite clear—and are reinforced by employers—that marijuana use disqualifies someone from commercial driving.
Are some drivers choosing pot over driving?
"There's no doubt in my mind that a percentage of drivers are going to leave this industry after testing positive, particularly for marijuana, for a number of reasons. One, that positive test is now captured in the Clearinghouse for a minimum of five years. It's going to be hanging over them for that five years, even if they clear the Return-to-Duty testing process. But if they never start, [the RTD process] it'll just stay in there," explained Dave Osiecki, president and CEO of Scopelitis Transportation Consulting, LLC.
"Another reason is that some drivers are certainly going to decide that they agree with state marijuana laws and not the federal marijuana law. It will be a philosophical thing for some,” Osiecki added. “Still, another reason is that some companies will keep a driver on after they test positive and sponsor their Return-to-Duty testing process. But other companies won't. They will just terminate a driver when they're positive or never hire them."
One positive note is that the overall number of drug violations is relatively small compared to the number of CDL holders. "Looking at the total number of tests conducted, the positive rate is still fairly minimal," Moore noted.
"I think we have to put that 15,682 number in context,” Osiecki added. “On its own, in isolation, that looks like a large number and it is. But when you compare it to the number of drivers that are in the testing pool—4.3 million interstate and intrastate—it's less than one half of 1% of drivers that are in that category. Even if we were to lose them all, even if they decide to move to another line of work, the industry is going to be able to replace that figure."
One sticking point Osiecki and others recognize, is that younger drivers are more likely than older drivers to use marijuana recreationally, so the industry could be losing one of its most sought-after demographic pools.
"If someone's super young and they're just getting into this industry and they test positive, maybe they'll feel like, 'Hey, this industry isn't for me.' If they're middle age and they test positive and they haven't done anything else in their life, that's going to play into their decision [to start the RTD process],” Osiecki pointed out.
The industry may not know the full impact of marijuana use on drivers until more data is gathered.
"It's going to take three or four or five months for us to really see what this trend looks like,” Osiecki explained. “I don't think it's going to take very long. It's just going to be a matter of months to see if that number stays up there in the tens of thousands or if it goes down over time. We won't know that until we see more reports."
The next report is expected in mid-July.