A new voice in the cannabis legalization debate is America’s trucking force, which counts an estimated 3.5 million drivers in the United States, according to Census reports.
At a May Senate Surface Transportation, Maritime, Freight, and Ports Subcommittee hearing titled “Freight Mobility: Strengthening America’s Supply Chains and Competitiveness,” lawmakers and those who testified addressed the “current challenges facing the freight industry, and the ways in which Congress and stakeholders can enhance our nation’s transportation infrastructure and supply chains to ensure the continued competitiveness of American freight movement.” It was through this lens that cannabis came up.
Witnesses included Chuck Baker, the president of the American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association; Lamont Byrd, the director of the Safety and Health Department for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Chris Connor, president & CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities; and Chris Spear, the president & CEO of the American Trucking Associations.
Spear testified that changing cannabis laws — 18 states and D.C. have now legalized cannabis for adult use, and dozens of states have medical cannabis programs — “have uniquely challenged our industry, and have exposed critical issues related to workplace and highway safety.”
“As states move to legalize marijuana, the trucking industry, like the rest of American society, is evaluating and considering changes to keep pace with the evolving regulatory environment,” Spear noted, adding that the Association’s members “recognize” the dramatic shift in public opinion when it comes to legalization. The latest national surveys put public support at about 60%, with many statewide polls showing stronger support for cannabis law reform.
“However, trends and popular opinion do not always lead to good policy, and while debates about decriminalization are timely, policies that limit employer drug testing programs to the detriment of transportation safety will result in more crashes, injuries, and fatalities,” Spear testified.
Spear specifically called out concerns related to the initial draft of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which was reintroduced in Congress last month. The House passed the MORE Act passed in an historic vote in 2019.
The initial version though, Spear said, “neglected to recognize the significant impact that removing marijuana from the schedule of controlled substances would have on highway and workplace safety,” he testified.
Spear highlighted the lack of national policies with regard to testing for cannabis impairment.
“Until there is an enforceable national impairment standard for marijuana, and until Congress grants DOT the authority to specifically regulate marijuana use, any marijuana-related legislation must take into account the impacts that such changes would have on the safety of our transportation network, as well as employer’s ability to maintain a safe working environment,” Spear testified.
The American Transportation Research Institute, a non-profit that has focused on transportation studies since the 1950s, is setting out to better understand some of these areas of concern and unknowns as they pertain to trucking and cannabis. The Institute’s board of directors, for example, recently approved their 2021 Top Research Priorities, identified by ATRI’s Research Advisory Committee during its annual meeting held in May in Atlanta. On the list: cannabis. Specifically, ATRI will study the “impacts of decriminalization on the trucking industry,” which will also serve as an update to its 2019 report, which looked at roadway safety and workplace changes in states that were undergoing cannabis law reform.
“There’s still a lot of questions around what [cannabis legalization] means for the trucking industry, as was the impetus for the 2019 study,” Rebecca Brewster, president and chief operating officer of ATRI, told Cannabis Wire. “As we see more states decriminalize, the likelihood that we’re going to be sharing the road with car drivers who are impaired increases. And so what does that mean for our workplace safety?”
Brewster indicated that, when it comes to the trucking industry, there are more questions than answers, which is part of the reason that the research committee recommended diving back into cannabis.
“They really would like the soup to nuts on the topic,” Brewster said. “It is everything from: what do we do about testing and the lack of a national standard? What do we do about our employees who are working in the back office? What are the implications there? What is the crash experience in the states where they have decriminalized?”
Brewster said that legalization brings a “concern over the safety implications,” but acknowledged that, simply put, state laws are changing.
“The roadways are our workplace. So we want those roadways to be safe and we want the drivers of trucks and cars to be free from impairment,” Brewster said. “But there’s also a realistic view that the world is changing in terms of decriminalization. And we need to understand and not just be in a reactionary mode, we need to understand and prepare for what that means for the trucking industry.”