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Do marijuana legalization efforts give a false sense of safety?

July 7, 2020
Operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a major safety issue, especially for commercial truckers. It is important for carriers to pinpoint the telltale signs of marijuana use and enforce anti-drug-use policies in the workplace.

As the legalization of marijuana in varied jurisdictions has created some level of legal acceptance and usage among the public, the consumption of the substance still causes impairment while operating a motor vehicle on U.S. roadways.

“When you look across the country, it's kind of a patchwork of what's legal, what's not legal, what's medical, what's not, what’s decriminalized, what's not,” explained Darrin Grondel. “The easy part for commercial vehicle operators is they know that they can't consume at all.”

Grondel, vice president of traffic safety and government relations for the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, known as, shared insights on the impact of marijuana usage on commercial vehicle drivers, an overview of different cannabis products in use today, and telltale signs that someone may be impaired during the Truckload Carriers Association’s recent Virtual Safety and Security Conference. is a nonprofit organization that promotes the education of making informed and responsible choices on alcohol and drug use, with an effort to eliminate impaired driving. Prior to joining, Grondel worked as a trooper for the Washington State Patrol for 25 years. He was a captain of the state’s commercial vehicle division prior to retirement from the force.

Impact of impairment

“If you look nationwide, 36,000 people died in this country in 2019 in motor vehicle crashes,” Grondel advised. “And almost 11,000 people died due to impairment.” Impairment most often refers to when a driver is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, but can also be caused by excessive drowsiness or fatigue. 

While a number of organizations have made progress over the last several decades to admonish driving under the influence of alcohol, or drunk driving, Grondel expressed concern that there is almost a public indifference to “drugged” driving. This conclusion is derived from a recent survey conducted by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association and 

Some of that indifference may come from those who do not understand or acknowledge that even prescription drugs can cause impairment. This is why, Grondel suggested, it is so important to stay educated on the effects and rally around communicating the impact of consuming any types of substances.

“People think, ‘Well, my doctor has prescribed this to me and it shouldn't be impairing to me,’ when in reality, it might be impairing your balance, coordination, depth perception, and reaction times,” Grondel said.

There is very little data on driving impairment involving other drugs besides alcohol, he added. The challenge with any drugs besides alcohol is that the testing availability and accuracy is a challenge – especially for roadside incidents.

Another concern is that the combination of different drugs taken together – referred to as poly-drug use – can create varied levels of impairment. Add to that, data on drivers under the influence of any substance are limited, Grondel explained.

“Almost three-quarters of drivers involved in fatal crashes, who tested positive for cannabis also had multiple substances in their system at the time of the crash,” Grondel said, based on a recent report by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HITDA). The breakdown of multiple substances used of that 75% includes 35% who tested positive for cannabis and alcohol, 29% tested positive for cannabis and other drugs, and 11% tested positive for all three categories – alcohol, cannabis and other drugs. “It's interesting people say, ‘I only use cannabis.’ Well, the data is actually showing that more people use cannabis in combination with multiple substances.”

“I would challenge you to look at this as impaired driving regardless of the substance,” Grondel said. “It is still impairing of a driver, and it impacts your commercial vehicle operations, either from previous drivers or from the public who crashes into your rigs.” He urged attendees to acknowledge they can have an impact on reducing impaired driving.

“Truck drivers log almost 432 billion miles annually,” Grondel said. “Truck driving is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States, with 28.3 fatal injuries per 100,000 miles for full time workers in 2018.”

“Many of those crashes were not necessarily the fault of the commercial vehicle,” he added.

Overview of cannabis products available

The cannabis plant comprises 480 different chemical compounds. Many are familiar with Delta 9 – THC, which creates the psychoactive response in the brain responsible for the euphoria some experience when ingesting marijuana. Unlike alcohol, which is water soluble, the chemical compounds of cannabis are a lipid soluble. Because the brain is made up of fatty tissue, these chemical compounds can store in the brain and impact cognitive and physical movement.  

“Since the brain is our whole function of our body, this is why it was so important to understand the impacts that it can have for anybody operating a motor vehicle, or even performing safety-related functions — forklifts or handling other types of equipment,” said Grondel.

Grondel explained the legalization of marijuana has made much stronger strains of the substance more readily available, and has expanded the consumption possibilities.

“It is actually much more dangerous because of the concentration levels that we're seeing in marijuana,” Grondel said. “We've seen marijuana go from 3 to 6% THC concentration, to almost 30% in flower and then to 93 to 94% concentration in some of the oils.”

“Those concentrations have a deep impact on the level of impairment,” he added.

Fleets and safety managers should be aware of the variety of methods with which someone could ingest marijuana. The traditional pulmonary method is done through smoking, vaporizing, dabbing and even inhalers.

Due to the commercialization of marijuana, many products can now be ingested through oral or digestive products, often referred to as edibles or drinkables.

“These are edible products from potato chips to gummy bears to chocolate bars,” Grondel said. “Anything you can put the product in you can actually put into an edible. They have capsules that they can use.”

“They may take a little longer to actually absorb and metabolize through the liver and get into the system before they may have an impact,” Grondel added.

A more recent trend has been the increased use of cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD. This compound can be ingested a number of ways including gummies or suspended in liquid or droplet form consumed orally, or through dermal patches.  

Those who use CBD products claim it addresses a variety of conditions such as pain relief or reducing anxiety. But, Grondel says there is no known evidence currently suggesting CBD helps alleviate these conditions.

He added that the use of transdermal patches for pain relief is also a concern because it may allow for transmission of the substance into the blood stream, which allows THC to store in the fats of the body. “Just to be aware that is an issue that has been raised and is of concern,” advised Grondel, of transdermal CBD patch use with commercial vehicle drivers.

There is only one product approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Epidiolex, which is used to treat epilepsy symptoms.

“There [are] no known benefits to taking CBD over the counter,” advised Grondel, based on information sited from Dr. Davy Smith, a physician and chief of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at the University of California San Diego. “That's up to the individual, but right now, there's no real empirical evidence to support those claims.”

Signs of impairment and establishing a safety culture

When it comes to commercial drivers, alcohol and marijuana are most often the substances used in combination with one another.

“Through good training and good follow-up, safety managers are able to check with their drivers on a frequent basis and make sure that their drivers are not using other substances while operating their company vehicles," said Grondel.

He suggested safety managers and fleets consider educating staff on telltale signs of impairment, which are organized into seven different drug categories. These categories are what law enforcement officers consider when assessing impairment for someone at a roadside traffic stop.

“The estimated drug effects vary based on the type if smoked oral edibles and those types of things,” said Grondel. “We're starting to learn more and more about those and how they actually metabolized in the body.”

He advised the estimated impact and duration of effects after smoking or ingesting THC can vary widely. For instance, an individual who smokes THC may see peak effects one to 30 minutes after the initial smoking, may have behavioral and psychological effects for three to five hours, and residual effects for up to 24 hours. With orally ingested THC, such as edibles, the peak effect may be anywhere from one to three hours after the initial eating, and the behavioral and residual effects are dose dependent with no clear timeline. Additional research is needed to understand all methods of ingestion and the effects, duration, and long-term impacts, added Grondel.

Grondel suggested a number of signs indicative of marijuana usage. He advised the following symptoms in combination may be a telltale sign someone is high:

  • Pupil size and reaction to light
  • Body temperature, muscle tone, and other indicators
  • Marijuana odor may not be present, he added

When testing, Grondel said that some synthetic cannabinoids may not register on drug tests. In other words, if someone is displaying telltale signs but tests negative, they may still be under the influence of some type of substance.

Based on Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Section 382 requirements, all safety managers are required to have 60 minutes of alcohol and 60 minutes of drug training, advised Grondel. “In many respects, that timeframe is inadequate to train people in some of the issue around drug and alcohol awareness, especially today how it is changing dramatically across the board,” he said.

“With legalization efforts, does it give people kind of a false sense of safety? If you've legalized it, you've made it safer,” Grondel added.

Grondel suggested safety must be a priority at the government funding level as well, to make an impact on roadways. “Truly if safety is a value, what are the investments that we're making to support that?” advised Grondel.

“How do you help change culture? How do you improve safety?” Grondel said. “How do you make that where it's not just a slogan on the wall, but it's actually an attitude and the belief that we have that permeates an entire organization?”

About the Author

Erica Schueller | Editorial Director | Commercial Vehicle Group

Erica Schueller is the Editorial Director of the Endeavor Commercial Vehicle Group. The commercial vehicle group includes the following brands: American Trucker, Bulk Transporter, Fleet Maintenance, FleetOwner, Refrigerated Transporter, and Trailer/Body Builders brands.

An award-winning journalist, Schueller has reported and written about the vehicle maintenance and repair industry her entire career. She has received accolades for her reporting and editing in the commercial and automotive vehicle fields by the Truck Writers of North America (TWNA), the International Automotive Media Competition (IAMC), the Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Awards and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE) Azbee Awards.

Schueller has received recognition among her publishing industry peers as a recipient of the 2014 Folio Top Women in Media Rising Stars award, acknowledging her accomplishments of digital content management and assistance with improving the print and digital products in the Vehicle Repair Group. She was also named one Women in Trucking’s 2018 Top Women in Transportation to Watch.

She is an active member of a number of industry groups, including the American Trucking Associations' (ATA) Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC),  the Auto Care Association's Young Auto Care Networking Group, GenNext, and Women in Trucking.

In December 2018, Schueller graduated at the top of her class from the Waukesha County Technical College's 10-week professional truck driving program, earning her Class A commercial driver's license (CDL).  

She has worked in the vehicle repair and maintenance industry since 2008.

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