There are a lot of questions to be answered regarding trucking and a possible change in how the DEA treats marijuana. - Image: HDT graphic

There are a lot of questions to be answered regarding trucking and a possible change in how the DEA treats marijuana.

Image: HDT graphic

I was visiting my daughter for her college spring break in California, where recreational marijuana use has been legal since 2016. The unmistakable scent of burning weed was common, and billboards advertised cannabis dispensaries.

If she's going to take advantage of the fact that cannabis is legal where she lives, we emphasized, she needs to approach its use the same way we taught her to approach alcohol — you can enjoy in moderation at home, but don't get behind the wheel. She has that luxury; commercial truck drivers do not.

Today, more than half of states have legalized marijuana, either for medical or recreational use. My state, Alabama, is not one of them (well, it theoretically legalized medical marijuana in 2021, but it’s still tied up in legal challenges) — but even here, it’s not unusual to catch a whiff of pot smoke.

Why Legalized Marijuana Causes Problems for Trucking

State legalization and the increasing acceptance of marijuana has become a major concern for trucking, where drivers could fail a drug test even if they haven’t used it for weeks. And because cannabis is categorized as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government (a category that also includes heroin), that driver could lose their job.

They might even exit the industry if they don’t have the time or desire to go through the lengthy return-to-duty process for using a product that is legal where they live.

Schedule I drugs are deemed to have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. But much has changed since marijuana was put into the Schedule 1 category back in 1970, and the federal government is considering whether it should recategorize cannabis.

Should Marijuana Be Reclassified as a Less-Dangerous Drug? What Would That Mean for Trucking?

Last August, the Food and Drug Administration recommended that the Drug Enforcement Administration recategorize marijuana.

Documents released in January show that scientists at the FDA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse recommended that marijuana be reclassified as a Schedule III drug, a category that includes medications such as ketamine and testosterone. These drugs are available by prescription. The documents said there is some “scientific support” for therapeutic uses of marijuana, such as pain management and chemotherapy side effects.

Theoretically, such a reclassification would open the door for truck drivers to use marijuana in their off-duty hours, similar to how alcohol is treated under the regulations.

That FDA’s recommendation is being considered by the DEA, but it has not yet issued any formal rulemaking documents. The reclassification will be subject to public comment and debate before it is made final.

Marijuana Research: The Chicken or the Egg?

The last time this categorization was reviewed was in 2016, the same year California legalized marijuana. At that time, the government decided to leave it as a Schedule 1 drug, pointing to a lack of scientific evidence supporting marijuana’s medical use.

And this is the real catch-22. There are major restrictions on research into Schedule 1 drugs, meaning there is very little research on marijuana’s medical uses or on topics such as how it affects driving. Since 1968, federal researchers were allowed to study marijuana only from a farm at the University of Mississippi. In 2021 the DEA finally approved new growers of research marijuana.

If the federal government eases restrictions and possibly removes marijuana from the Schedule I designation, it would mean significant challenges for the trucking industry, said the American Transportation Research Institute, a nonprofit supported by the American Trucking Associations.

The Problem with Marijuana Impairment

Prior to any federal legalization action, ATRI says, there should be a nationally recognized marijuana impairment test and impairment standards, among other things.

In a study ATRI released last year on the impacts of marijuana legalization on the trucking industry, it found that drivers and carriers are equally frustrated with current drug testing limitations, in particular the lack of a standard roadside test for marijuana impairment. (And that's a whole 'nother column, to be continued.)

“Testing impaired individuals through a quantitative measurement — which has been key to combating drunk driving — remains elusive in the case of marijuana,” ATRI said. “More research is needed.”

Amen to that.

About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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