I'm sitting in a cheap metal chair in a back room in the First Presbyterian Church. The room is full of people, 43 of them to be precise, arranged loosely in similar chairs around the edge of the room. Almost all of us are drinking coffee. The walls are adorned with religious iconography, and poster boards with the Twelve Steps are displayed on a table in the front of the room.
I’m not here because I’ve seen the error of my agnostic ways. I’m here to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The meeting starts, and so do the introductions.
“I’m Mike, and I’m an alcoholic.”
“I’m Judy, and I’m an alcoholic.”
The introductions move around the room until they get to me. “I’m George,” I say. There is a long, uncomfortable pause, and I feel everyone looking at me. Then the guy next to me speaks and the moment moves on.
For the next hour, I listen to people tell sad and moving and wretched and occasionally funny stories about their struggles with alcohol. People credit AA with literally saving their lives. They talk about contemplating suicide and family members who abandoned them. It is intensely personal.
And I have never felt more like an intruder in my life.
I’m not an alcoholic. I’m attending AA classes because I am a professional driver and I tested positive for marijuana on a pre-employment drug test. I have been a driver on and off for about four years. My previous career was as a table games dealer, a croupier, mostly in Las Vegas but also in Native American casinos in the Southwest. Most casinos conduct random drug tests on their employees, so I have spent most of my life subject to pre-employment and random drug testing. In 20 years as a dealer and a driver, I have never before failed a drug test.
I drive for a ski resort in Northern New Mexico. It’s seasonal work, and in the summer when I’m not employed as a driver, I smoke marijuana occasionally. I quit smoking 30 days before the ski season started, because I knew the drug test was coming. In the past, 30 days was more than enough time for the drug to purge itself from my system.
Not this time.
The problem with marijuana laws
I live less than an hour from the Colorado border. Colorado passed Amendment 64 in 2012, allowing adults 21 years or older the right to legally purchase up to an ounce of marijuana, so it is a drug that is readily available.
But marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, it has been classified by the federal government as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning that in the view of the federal government, it has a strong potential for abuse and is considered a harmful substance with no medical benefits.
Despite this, 11 states and Washington, DC, have now legalized marijuana for recreational use for adults over 21. And 33 states have legalized medical marijuana. Other states have decriminalized it. All this has created a patchwork of conflicting laws that have resulted in a regulatory and law-enforcement nightmare. The state in which I live, New Mexico, has yet to legalize recreational marijuana, but in 2007 New Mexico voters approved the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, legalizing medical marijuana. In March 2015, the New Mexico Senate passed Senate Bill 383 to decriminalize simple marijuana possession.
For professional drivers required to have a Commercial Driver's License, any marijuana use is forbidden. In 1991, the federal government passed the Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act, requiring Department of Transportation agencies to implement drug and alcohol testing of safety-sensitive transportation employees. “Safety-sensitive positions can include driving a truck, working on pipelines, operating a ferry or train, or repairing an airplane,” notes the law.
The DOT mandates drug tests use urine samples only. Employers of CDL drivers test for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, and PCP. As a safety-sensitive employee, you are tested for numerous reasons: pre-employment, reasonable suspicion/cause, random testing, return-to-duty, follow-up, and post-accident.
My drug test was a urine test, classified as pre-employment.
Critics of random marijuana testing will note that marijuana remains detectable for weeks, if not months, in a urine test, meaning that a positive result does not necessarily indicate recent use. The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, is fat-soluble, and is stored in fat cells. Numerous factors, including a person's weight, metabolism, and the potency of the marijuana used, can affect how long the drug remains in one's system, but typically a urine drug test will indicate use within the last 30 to 45 days. In contrast, cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamines, MDMA, and heroin are usually only detectable within three to six days of use.
Drug tests and impaired driving
The inability of current tests to differentiate between recent and less-recent usage means that a urine test is an ineffective way to discern whether a driver was impaired, or under the influence of the drug, when tested. Even the most strident anti-marijuana critics will find it difficult to argue that a person who smoked a few hits of marijuana three weeks prior is currently too impaired to safely drive.
The Centers for Disease Control notes that, “although we know marijuana negatively affects a number of skills needed for safe driving, and some studies have shown an association between marijuana use and car crashes, it is unclear whether marijuana use actually increases the risk of car crashes. This is because:
- An accurate roadside test for drug levels in the body doesn’t exist.
- Marijuana can remain in a user’s system for days or weeks after last use (depending on how much a person uses and how often they use marijuana).
- Drivers are not always tested for drug use, especially if they have an illegal blood-alcohol concentration level because that is enough evidence for a driving-while-impaired charge.
- When tested for substance use following a crash, drivers can have both drugs and alcohol or multiple drugs in their system, making it hard to know which substance contributed more to the crash.”
Adding to the problem is the fact that marijuana use in the American public has become widespread. According to Scientific American, "Marijuana is more popular and accessible in the U.S. than any other street drug. In national surveys, 48% of Americans say they have tried it.”
This makes the numerous studies that cite the fact that many drivers, when tested, have marijuana in their systems, problematic. As more and more Americans drive around the country with some level of marijuana detectable in their system, the necessity of an accurate test becomes increasingly important.
‘So am I fired?’
The first notice that I get that something has gone wrong is about a week after I take my drug test, when I get a phone call from the lab that tested my urine specimen. The MRO, or Medical Review Officer, asks several questions. He asks why I think I failed my test, about whether I have used marijuana. I evade answering his questions honestly, because I can see no benefit in admitting that I have used drugs. He asks if I am using any prescription medicine. I tell him no. He asks if I can give any reason for the positive result. When I answer in the negative, he tells me he must then terminate the call.
I am a little numb at this point. I like my job. I'm assuming I will be fired. I'm thinking about how I'm going to update my resume, whether this will be on my permanent record, and if I will ever drive again professionally.
Googling “CDL failed drug test” leads me to some trucking forums where I read about the plight of other drivers who have failed drug tests. Most of them say that the failed test was a career nightmare, and the DOT-mandated return-to-work process expensive and useless.
“Just find another career,” one driver says. “No one will ever hire you again.” There are heartbreaking stories of drivers who accidentally ate a marijuana-spiked brownie or pastry and failed a random test. The consensus seems to be that most of the large trucking companies won’t hire a driver who has a failed drug test on their record. A few drivers talk about finding a small trucking company that was willing to take a chance on a driver and eventually being able to rebuild their careers.
So I call recruiters at four of the largest trucking companies in the country and ask about their hiring policies regarding drivers who have failed a drug test but have completed the DOT-mandated return-to-duty process. One company requires that the failed test be at least a year old, another five years, and two others require that the failed test be at least 10 years old. So if you want to drive for a major trucking company, on paper at least, a failed drug test is a huge issue.
The next day, my boss calls me. It may be worth mentioning at this point that I have been a model employee, never missed a day or been late. I have never had a driving incident or accident. I have worked hard to develop a reputation as a safe, friendly, and reliable driver. My boss and I have a good relationship.
“I'm guessing you know why I’m calling,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say. “So am I fired?”
“Actually, no,” she says. “But you are suspended for 30 days, effective immediately. If you complete the DOT return-to-duty process, the company is prepared to give you a second chance.”
“Really?” I say, surprised. “That's great, I appreciate that. Do you mind if I take a couple days to look at the process and the cost and get back to you?”
She agrees to this and I hang up. I’m feeling a little better already. At least there's a chance I can keep my job. I go back online and start researching the return-to-duty process.
If, following a failed drug test, an employee wishes to return to a safety-sensitive position, the process is as follows: The employee must be evaluated by a DOT qualified Substance Abuse Professional (SAP), then complete treatment and/or education as recommended by the SAP, and then return to the SAP for a follow-up evaluation (employers are required by federal law to give the employee a list of qualified SAPs, something my employer did not do).
The SAP, as referenced on DOT website www.transportation.gov, is “not an advocate for the employee or employer.” It warns SAPs, “You are a ‘gatekeeper’ for the DOT’s return-to-duty process. You represent the major decision point (and in some cases the only decision point) an employer may have in choosing whether or not to place an employee behind the steering wheel of a school bus, in the cockpit of a plane, at the helm of an oil tanker, at the throttle of a train, in the engineer compartment of a subway car, or at the emergency control valves of a natural gas pipeline. Your responsibility to the public is enormous!”
Because I live in a small mountain town, the closest SAP is in Albuquerque, two and a half hours away. I call her and quickly fill her in on my situation. She explains that the initial evaluation will cost $175 and take about 90 minutes. She will direct me to appropriate counseling and, following that, I will return for another evaluation, which will cost $125.
I think about where I'm going to get $300. I think about the fact that I am lucky to have an employer that is willing to let me return to work. I decide it is worth adding a little bit to the credit card debt. I make an appointment for the following week.
Meeting the SAP
I dress up for the appointment. I want to make a good impression. I suspect that the impression I make will determine the severity of the counseling that she recommends. Her office is in a small office park next to a fitness studio. I can see women exercising through the window. I’m early, so I sit in my car and enjoy the crisp New Mexico morning and read a book. When I finally enter the office, there is a waiting room with a few chairs and a table strewn with magazines. The inevitable Southwest-style framed prints adorn the walls. A sign says that she may be in session and to have a seat.
After a few minutes, she enters and introduces herself. She invites me into her office. There is a couch and a leather chair, opposite a desk and office chair. I introduce myself. She asks me a few questions and I explain my situation. I am truthful with her about my marijuana use, and explain to her that I am an occasional and casual marijuana user, and that I can stop smoking when necessary. She tells me that I will need to take a couple written tests.
The first test I take is called the SASSI-4. She tells me to be honest when I take the test, and that it is designed to catch defensive answers. I research the test later and find that SASSI is an acronym for Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory. It is a commonly used tool to detect, and assess levels of, substance use or abuse. I won't ever find out how I scored on the test.
The other test I take is called the DAST, or Drug Abuse Screening Test. It is another commonly used test among Substance Abuse Professionals. There are 28 questions, yes or no answers, basically asking about my drug use. Have I used drugs other than those required for medical reasons? (Obviously, yes) Have I abused prescription drugs? (No) and so on. I have an issue with number 16: Have you ever been in trouble at work because of drug abuse? I stop and take the test in to the SAP.
“I am in trouble at work currently because of drug use," I say. "This question assumes abuse. I'm not sure how to answer it.”
“I can’t help you,” she says. “Try not to over-think it and answer the questions honestly.”
I skim the top of the test. It says that “drug abuse refers to any non-medical use of drugs.” So I reluctantly check yes, even though I don't consider my marijuana use abuse.
I talk to the SAP for about 90 minutes, answering questions, not just about my drug use, but about my family, my girlfriend and my personal life. I explain to her that I am presently unemployed, and that expensive counseling will be difficult for me. She tells me that some counseling will be necessary. She asks me about AA.
“Is there another option?” I ask. “AA is a religious program, essentially, and I’m not a religious person.”
“Well, here's your problem,” she says. “You need something nearby, that you can get done quickly, so you can return to work, and you need it to be cheap. These requirements limit what I can recommend for you.”
She points out that AA refers to God “as we understand him.” That I can interpret a “higher power” however I like. I decide that this is the wrong time and place to take a stand on my beliefs and agree that I will go to AA classes if that’s what is necessary. She says she’ll forward her recommendations to my employer and to me sometime in the next few days. I give her my credit card, and $175 disappears into her iPhone.
The return to duty process
Two days later I get an email with her recommendations/requirements. I am required to attend four sessions of individual or group outpatient counseling, and eight verified self-help meetings.
We've already figured out that AA is the most economical option for the self-help meetings. For the outpatient counseling, the SAP gives me a list of three local resources. I call and leave messages with all three. Two of them never respond. The third is a local LCSW, or Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She finally responds five days later. She tells me that we can meet over the internet, using Skype. It will cost $75. Following that, she will refer me to a local group that meets Monday through Thursday, and that will cover the remaining three outpatient counseling sessions.
I meet with her for an hour over the internet the next day. It follows a similar pattern to the meeting with the SAP. How do I use drugs? How is my personal life? Any destructive thoughts or contemplation of suicide? Eventually, mercifully, it ends. Another $75 on the credit card. Now I have to go to the three group meetings.
My group meetings are held every Monday through Thursday, in a small, old building next to a local coffee shop. There is a couch and some thrift store-style chairs, and a huge hole in the ceiling in the corner of the room that looks like an alien had burst out of it. Occasionally there is a drip of water into a maroon tub placed below. A gas stove flickers in the corner.
There are seven people there when I walk in. I can tell most of them know each other. I later will learn that some of them have been attending these group meetings for a long time – one woman for 25 years.
The facilitator is a counselor who explains that this is a very informal group. There is no set time to show up, and we are free to leave whenever we feel like it. There is a basket on a table in the front of the room, and attendees can drop as much cash in there as they are able to contribute. He looked around. “So what do you guys want to talk about?”
I notice certain words keep repeating. “Story,” for instance, as in, the “story” I tell myself about myself. Or the “story” I tell myself about how I think other people should act. There are references to Buddhism. And there is a pattern to his questioning. I'm paraphrasing, but it usually went something like this:
- “Is it true?”
- “Are you sure that it’s true?”
- “Can you say with 100% certainty that it is true?”
- “If it's not true, what is true?”
I later find out this line of questioning is loosely based on the teachings of Byron Katie. Katie is an author and speaker who created a line of self-help inquiry she refers to as “The Work of Byron Katie,” or “The Work.” Katie, according to her website, struggled in her 30s with depression and thoughts of suicide. She says that she had a realization: “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn't believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment. That joy is in everyone, always." The Work is based on the following questions:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it's true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
Though many people credit "The Work" with helping them treat personal problems, Katie is not without her critics. In a 2002 Los Angeles Times article, clinical psychologist Marion Jacobs says the format raises questions.
“If she just got up and gave a sermon, you could listen and decide where it fits in your life. But she’s working with people individually. When you do that, you’re walking a fuzzy line of what is therapy.” The article also mentions that Katie has no psychological, theological, spiritual or therapeutic training.
Then there are those eight AA meetings.
I had, a few weeks earlier, read an article in the Atlantic by Gabrielle Glaser, entitled "The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.” The premise of the article is that, although “its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States...researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of others more effective.”
The idea that the state is going to prescribe me a religious program designed for alcoholics as the only feasible option to return to work is problematic, in my opinion. But, once again, this is not the time or place to make a stand. If I had more money there are certainly secular options. But I'm not bringing in a paycheck at the moment, so AA it is.
The total cost of the classes, including my voluntary donations to AA and to the group meetings run by the counselor from Family Mediation Services, has been $406 – not including gas.
When I complete all the required classes, which takes about three weeks, I return to Albuquerque for my exit interview with the SAP. She photocopies the evidence that I have brought to prove that I attended all the mandated classes. She will send a copy to me and to the Designated Employer Representative at my work. Once I complete a return-to-duty drug test, I will be able to return to driving. The DOT also mandates that I be randomly tested at least twice within the next year, at my expense.
My next questions were: How long will this stay on my record? Will I be able to get another driving job?
When a CDL driver is being considered for employment, most large trucking companies will check a driver's record through what is called a DAC Report. The DAC Report is sold by a company called HireRight, which collects and sells information on drivers in a similar fashion to the way large credit reporting agencies use a database to track people's credit. And, like the big credit reporting agencies, HireRight has been accused of disseminating inaccurate information and being irresponsible when it comes to correcting inaccuracies. In 2012 HireRight paid a $2.6 million payment to settle charges that it violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Among the information provided in the report are “drug and alcohol histories, including pre-employment test results.” HireRight uses publicly available records and contacts with trucking schools and previous employers to collect information on drivers. DOT drug and alcohol violations stay on a driver's record for three years, although employers must maintain certain drug and alcohol testing records for at least five years, including positive test results.
At the time of my failed drug test, no easily searchable federal database exists for employers. However, that is changing. As of January 2020, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will have the new Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse will be up and running. Motor carriers will be required to check this electronic database containing records of violations of drug and alcohol prohibitions for drivers required to have a commercial driver’s license. When a driver completes the return-to-duty process, this information will also be recorded in the clearinghouse.
So the answer to the question, “If I fail a DOT drug test will I ever drive again?” is a complicated one. It is likely, and my personal experience has indicated, that a driver with an otherwise clean driving record will be able to find some type of driving employment. And technically a failed drug test remains on a driver’s record for only three years.
However, if the driver wants employment with a large trucking company, it appears likely that immediately following a failed test a driver is basically unemployable, and that it will likely be at least a year, and probably more than three, before a large trucking company will consider that driver for employment.
'I have no one else to blame'
I completely and fully accept responsibility for my failed drug test. I have no one else to blame. Even though I wasn't driving at the time I was using marijuana, I knew I would later be tested, and I cut it too close.
I have been driving for 32 years, and I have never had an accident. My driving record speaks for itself. But because of a legal activity (well, on the state level, anyway) that I engaged in on my time off, when I wasn’t driving, my career as a driver is in peril.
In my opinion, there are frustrating inconsistencies in current DOT laws. I can legally get drunk the night before I drive, and drive with a hangover the next day. I can drive while using a hands-free device and talking on the phone. I can show up for work after getting two hours of sleep. These are all statistically much riskier factors than allowing someone to drive who has trace elements of marijuana in their system. No scientific evidence exists to prove that 30 days after I use marijuana I am too impaired to drive. But the federally mandated consequences of my failed drug test imply that I am.
I also believe it makes no sense that the federal government thinks appropriate treatment for a driver who has been caught with marijuana in his or her system is Alcoholics Anonymous classes and a group therapy program that is based on the teachings of someone with no training in substance abuse.
I get the intent of current laws. A truck driver or driver getting high and jumping behind the wheel is illegal, and rightly so. All our lives are at stake.
But the failure of current laws, and drug tests, to enforce the spirit of the law – which is that drivers should not be impaired while driving – is something that needs to change.
* Editor’s Note: George Taylor is a pseudonym used by the writer, who asked that his real name not be used. Opinions expressed by the author are his own.