10,000 Down, More to Go – Is Marijuana Contributing to the Truck Driver Shortage?

All truck drivers are now required to register with the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse, which is a database that collects information regarding drug and alcohol violations. When analyzing violation reports for 2020 to 2022, it is apparent why drug use is a severe concern for employers worried about driver retention and industry professionals trying to turn the truck driver shortage around.

For example, 4,234 positive drug tests were reported to the clearinghouse in March 2020. In March 2021, that number rose slightly to 4,723. For the same month in 2022, 5,258 positive drug tests were reported. There was an apparent increase in positive tests from 2020 to 2021, and an even more substantial increase is expected when all tests from 2022 are counted.

The upward trend in positive drug tests among truck drivers reflects some similar issues in our culture at large:

  • Marijuana use laws are inconsistent between state and federal governments.
  • The use of marijuana is more accepted than ever, so more drivers are likely to participate in states that have legalized recreational use.
  • Drug testing is now a routine part of obtaining and maintaining a truck driving job.

We aren’t even halfway through 2022, and there have already been more than 10,000 positive drug tests reported to the clearinghouse. So you could say we’re 10,000 down and have many more to go, and that’s more bad news for the already debilitating truck driver shortage the trucking industry is experiencing.

Below we’ll explore some of the issues facing the trucking industry today and what you need to know as a carrier with driver retention concerns.

Drug Testing and the Trucking Industry

Truck drivers are now tested for marijuana and other drug use more often than ever. They face pre-hire drug screenings and must submit to further testing when they renew their DOT medical cards. If they’re involved in an accident, they’re drug tested to see if substance use was involved. Additionally, there are random drug tests that catch many drivers by surprise.

There are many opportunities to test positive, and marijuana is present in the urine for at least three and as many as 30 days after use. It can linger for two or more days in saliva. It is unlike many other drugs and illegal substances in this way, as it’s easy for off-duty usage to become an on-duty problem. If your company hasn’t experienced a driver testing positive, it’s only a matter of time.

Law Inconsistencies Create Problems for Drivers

While many states have legalized medical and recreational use, others have only legalized medical use, and more continue treating marijuana as a significant criminal offense. Moreover, many states are still actively pursuing marijuana users for violations. Making matters even more complicated, the federal government still considers marijuana illegal.

Most truck drivers are held to the federal standard, and the industry has zero-tolerance for drug violations. Drivers may legally consume marijuana or CBD products while enjoying their downtime at home in a state with legalized recreational use. As a result of this discrepancy, when those drivers return to work and head down the highway, they could face a drug test that leaves them out of a job for something completely legal when they did it.

The fact that marijuana was consumed while a driver was off work and in a legal state doesn’t hold much weight as a defense. As long as marijuana use is illegal federally, a positive test result is devastating for truck drivers. In addition, many drivers argue that the inconsistency between state and federal law creates confusion and unfairly restricts what they can do in their free time at home.

What Happens After a Positive Test?

When a truck driver tests positive for marijuana or another drug, they must go through the DOT return-to-duty process before they can accept another run. Unfortunately, that means financial hardship for many drivers and hardship for carriers and everyday citizens who depend on drivers to keep goods moving throughout the country.

What is the Return-to-Duty Process?

The Department of Transportation system of return-to-duty process ensures truck drivers are clean, sober, and safe to drive a commercial vehicle. The process is initiated when any of the following circumstances arise:

  • A driver tests positive for a controlled substance
  • A driver fails an alcohol test
  • A driver refuses to take a drug or alcohol test as required by DOT
  • A motor carrier has direct knowledge of inappropriate alcohol or drug usage by a driver

The Return-to-Duty Process

  1. Immediate intervention. Carriers are legally required to remove drivers from the road once they’re aware of a failed drug test or have direct knowledge of illegal usage interfering with their ability to drive safely and legally. The carrier is also required to report the violation to the appropriate authorities immediately.
  2. Provide information. When informing a driver of their removal from dispatch, carriers must provide a list of substance abuse professionals with the appropriate training and credentials to perform return-to-duty driver evaluations. You must make this list available even if you no longer want to employ the driver.
  3. Substance abuse evaluations and treatment. It’s the driver’s responsibility to seek out a qualified substance abuse provider from the list and start the process of earning their way back to driving privileges. Carriers are not a part of the process, have no control over the evaluating providers, and are not required to pay for substance abuse treatments. The provider will evaluate the driver and help with placement in a suitable education or treatment program. After completion of treatment, the provider will determine the driver’s suitability to return to work.
  4. Conditional return to duty. Once a provider determines that a driver can return to work safely, they will determine how many drug and alcohol tests are required over the first 12 months of return. After that, unannounced tests could continue for up to five years.

The longer a driver remains in treatment, the longer our country is down one more truck driver. While drug-related disqualifications are a vital part of safety in the trucking industry, should marijuana be treated the same way as other controlled substances in trucking? With 10,000 down for 2022 and counting, it may be time to rethink how we test and certify our drivers.