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North American fleets head into the weed(s)

Posted: October 29, 2018 by John G. Smith

AUSTIN, Texas – North America’s trucking industry finds itself in the midst of a growing drug problem. The same marijuana being legalized across Canada and select U.S. states is still banned by the federal government in the U.S. What remains is a legal quagmire, and carriers are still trying to determine what the details all mean.

Drivers with any trace of the drug – even if it’s legally acquired — will fail U.S. DOT drug tests that have a zero tolerance, and there is still no test to measure actual impairment. Carriers that need warehouse space in selected U.S. states are now competing against the marijuana industry itself, which finds itself having to close business deals in cold cash. (The U.S. banks are federally regulated and can’t accept the drug funds.) Some carriers see the drug as a new source of freight but would run afoul of U.S. federal rules if they drive into areas where marijuana is illegal. Then there are the potential job candidates who fail their first drug screens and compound labor shortages.

Abigail Potter, the manager of safety and occupational health policy at the American Trucking Associations, elicited a few laughs when she displayed a Canadian flag with a marijuana leaf in the place of the maple leaf during a presentation at the American Trucking Associations’ annual management conference and exhibition, but it’s clear that the issues are not limited to Canada alone.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana. Nine states and the District of Columbia have fully legalized it. Then there are the jurisdictions that have medical marijuana statutes. Eleven of those states include case law that requires to accommodate the drug’s use when possible.

“This really has opened up the accessibility of marijuana and also really has started to break down the stigma of marijuana use,” says Potter. In September, a Pew Research poll found that 62% of Americans support legalization, and the rates are highest among young generations. Seventy-four percent of surveyed millennials showed their support, compared to 63% of Generation X.

It isn’t the only research drawing attention. Just when Canada legalized recreational marijuana, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) reported a 5.2% increase in crashes in the legalizing states of Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, when compared to the neighboring states of Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, Potter said. This was even after accounting for differences in driver populations, insured vehicle fleets, urban versus rural exposure, unemployment and the weather.

“We don’t want that person behind the wheel. We want to prevent that person from getting behind the wheel,” she said. “It’s not ‘under the influence’. That is not our standard.”

“We really saw a rise on our pre-employment failures in part because it became normalized,” said Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association. “They [drivers] also don’t realize how long it stays in the system.” One LTL company, even after telling people not to apply for jobs if they had used the drug within a certain time period, were still seeing 60% of applicants fail the drug tests.

He also questions whether accident statistics capture the full picture when an impaired driver has been using marijuana and alcohol.

The push for further legalization also continues south of the border. Legalized recreational marijuana is now pending in New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. This November Michigan and North Dakota have scheduled referendums on legalization, while Missouri and Utah are holding referendums on the expanded use of medical marijuana.

“When more states start to legalize, there is going to be this movement to start transporting it from one state that has legalized to another,” Potter added.

Those who take the freight face a real risk. One way to secure a lifetime ban from trucking is to be convicted of a felony for moving or transporting drugs. “That applies to the driver and the motor carrier as well,” she said.

State officials might be fine with such loads, however federal agents might not be quite as willing to overlook a truckload of marijuana, which in some cases can be valued at close to $19 million.

Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, admits the business community was caught by surprise and never thought marijuana would actually be legalized.

“Little did we know at that time how much pain our young people were in,” he said of the 500,000 medical marijuana cards that were issued. One doctor made $500,000 in six months by writing related prescriptions.

In Colorado, the related businesses are also driving up the land prices in areas fleets use for warehousing. “The dispensaries and their grow houses, they tend to be zoned almost to the same places we are,” Fulton said.

Of course, Canada now faces a legal dynamic of its own.

“Whenever we had questions related to drug or alcohol impairment or cannabis, they were almost exclusively within the context of U.S. DOT regulations,” said Jonathan Blackham, director of policy and public affairs at the Canadian Trucking Alliance. How time change. “Now I look back on those days as the easy times. The golden days.”

“It’s been a huge gamechanger for us — and is really one of the largest issues we’re facing right now,” he said.

The Number 1 question is the issue of identified impaired drivers. Roadside testing devices are still “very, very limited” in terms of their ability to measure impairment, Blackham said, referring to the limits of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. Unofficially, the alliance has heard the thresholds for the devices are set closer to 15 nanograms.

“Legal or not, they can’t use the stuff,” he said, referring to cross-border drivers. But it’s a different story for domestic truckers who are only limited by thresholds for impairment.

“That’s a scary, scary thought.”

“We’re finding companies with policies all over the place – and I’m talking from the last time you used to impairment,” Blackham added. Air Canada won’t allow employees to use marijuana at all. Toronto police are requiring officers to stay off duty for 28 days after consuming the drug. And while some carriers find the concept offensive, others are weighing options from marijuana producers who would like their freight moved.

“We’re anticipating big-time problems at the Canada-U.S. border – less so on the commercial vehicle side, but more so on the passenger vehicle side,” Blackham said. “Having a little in your glovebox is a big deal, too.”

“We still don’t know how to move the stuff,” Fulton added, referring to the federal ban on marijuana and the cash nature of the businesses as two challenges. He wants the American Trucking Associations to establish some guidance on his side of the border.

“We need to have some consistency. We need to have some standards on this,” he said. “We frankly want it to be done in the safest manner.”

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