The impacts of cannabis legalization on the trucking industry, namely the recent decline in drivers due to strict rules on drug use on drug testing, are already well-documented. However, a new report from the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) dives in even further.

The report titled, “Impacts of Marijuana Legalization on the Trucking Industry” takes a closer look at the latest demographic trends in cannabis legalization, reviews research and data surrounding highway safety and cannabis use, summarizes workforce and hiring implications for the trucking industry and analyzes publicly available CDL driver drug test data. 

It also takes a closer look at truck driver and carrier opinions on cannabis — finding that the majority of both support a change in the current drug testing policies — along with an analysis of cannabis policies imposed upon drivers, detailed drug testing data, a closer look at research on cannabis, road safety, and much more.

Driver Shortage and Cannabis Legalization

The ATRI released its first research publication on the impact of cannabis legalization on the trucking industry in 2019. Citing the many additional jurisdictions that have since legalized or decriminalized cannabis, ATRI’s Research Advisory Committee voted last year to conduct research and revisit the topic.

To operate large trucks, drivers are required to possess a commercial driver’s license, and in the trucking industry in particular, current federal law requires those with commercial licenses to abstain from using cannabis or risk termination. According to the report and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, more than half of all positive trucking industry drug tests are for cannabis metabolite. 

Should a driver test positive, they are removed from the industry until they complete a series of remedial steps. Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse data indicates that more than 100,000 drivers tested positive and were removed from duty between 2020 and 2022.

“With a national driver shortage that fluctuated between 65,000 and 80,000 in recent years, these positive tests impact the industry,” the report says.

The report notes that federal prohibition “has been highlighted as a potential disincentive for drivers to stay in the industry, and it has even been argued that loosening the restrictions on marijuana use would make the industry more attractive and widen the potential labor pool.”

Valuable Insights on Cannabis Opinions in the Trucking Industry

The 61-page report is overflowing with information on cannabis and trucking, including figures on the increase of truckers residing in recreational cannabis states between 2019 and 2023 (18.5% versus 41.1% respectively), recent cannabis road safety research, federal requirements throughout the industry, a look at the last decade of drug testing data, and more. 

Among the highlights are survey results surrounding driver and carrier opinions on cannabis. A majority of carriers (56.3%) said they would be willing to hire a driver with a past positive cannabis test, though more than half (54.8%) of that group said a specific period of time would need to pass first. The most common increment of time reported was five years (37%).

The majority of carriers (60.1%) also reported that there had been a noticeable increase in positive pre-employment tests or walk-outs over the past five years, and of those who noticed an increase, nearly half (45.5%) indicated that no particular age group was more likely to test positive. Otherwise, the most frequently selected age group was 26-35 years old (27.6%).

Most carriers (62%) said that changes in federal drug testing policy are needed and that a cannabis impairment test should replace a cannabis use test (65.4%). While carriers largely recognized that the current model is flawed, most (40.9%) were still “extremely concerned” about impaired driving as a result of cannabis legalization.

Most drivers (55.4%) said that they believed highway safety had not been impacted by legalized cannabis use, and 65% said that a cannabis impairment test should replace a cannabis use test.

The driver survey also included a text box, where drivers could provide any final comments surrounding recreational cannabis. Most comments fell into two categories: those supporting a loosening of cannabis testing and laws (72.4%) and comments supporting the status quo (27.6%).

The Path Forward

The report says that there are two pathways the federal government can take in the future with cannabis, and both present challenges for the trucking industry.

Should it maintain federal prohibition, “the trucking industry will continue to have thousands of drivers annually placed in prohibited status and will lose many others to occupations that do not test for marijuana use,” the report said. ATRI says that companies can continue to enforce zero-tolerance policies and keeping the status quo could help resolve disputes from conflicting state and federal policies.

The report also states, “Any shift toward federal legalization would likely ease pressure on the industry’s driver shortage.”

“The central goal of industry drug testing efforts is highway safety. The current approach supports safety efforts, but also results in inefficiencies when drivers that do not present a safety issue are removed from the industry,” it says, adding that the trucking industry must take several actions to ensure safety and a lack of impairment before federal efforts to legalize cannabis come to fruition.

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