Drug Expert Weighs In on Safety of Alcohol Versus Marijuana

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From left: Dougherty, Lopez, Simo and Hardie speak on the panel. (SunJae Smith/American Trucking Associations)

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MINNEAPOLIS — To drug expert Todd Simo, the statement that the use of marijuana is just like alcohol, but safer, isn’t exactly accurate.

OK, maybe in one way, yes, pot is safer: You cannot eat enough gummy bears laced with THC to die, says Simo, chief medical officer for HireRight.

THC, or Tetrahydrocannabinol, is the substance that makes users high.

“But from a safety perspective, marijuana has a much longer period of impairment, different from an occupational perspective than alcohol, and therefore can have a much larger impact on safety,” Simo said.

“People running into each other?” Sure, that happens to alcohol abusers and pot users. But most likely it’s the pot users who stop at green lights. When that happens, there’s going to be an accident, Simo argues.

If a driver is messed up on grass, he or she is all of a sudden stopping on exit ramps, unable to spatially discriminate, and unable to make rapid decision-making, he added.

“Is that really safer?” he asked.

No matter which side you’re on in the alcohol vs. marijuana debate, one thing is clear: The use — and acceptance — of marijuana is growing fast in the United States, according to Simo and three other panelists who spoke at a recent session of American Trucking Associations’ 2023 Safety, Security, Human Resources National Conference & Exhibition.

The other panelists were Terri Dougherty, an editor with J.J. Keller & Associates; Tom Lopez, director of corporate safety at FedEx Express; and Holly Hardie, vice president of human resources at Cardinal Logistics Management Corp.

While 21 states currently allow recreational use of pot, 36 states allow medical use of the Schedule I drug.

Federal laws for marijuana use have not yet officially been taken off the books, but for the past few years, the feds have chosen not to charge marijuana users growing or using pot in small quantities, according to the panel members.

It’s different for interstate truck drivers. No matter where they live or work, if they fail a drug test for marijuana, they lose their job, and can’t return until they successfully complete a return-to-work process.

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A 2021 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that 13% of Americans use marijuana — or 52 million people, according to Dougherty. That’s more than double the amount logged in a 2002 SAMHSA survey.

“We continue to test for marijuana,” FedEx Express’ Lopez said. “We have 100% pre-employment testing and continue to use a five-panel test. We went through a long process with the company’s legal team to determine which jobs are safety sensitive.”

Lopez added, “We do have an accommodation process if an applicant tests positive only for marijuana for potential nonsafety sensitive jobs openings.”

“We had to ramp up our ‘reasonable suspicion’ policy,” Hardie said. “We had to make sure the company’s supervisors knew the characteristics of drug use.”


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While an alcohol user’s impairment can be measured by blowing into a Breathalyzer, there are currently no ways to measure whether a marijuana user is impaired.

“Unfortunately we’re far away with the available specimens we have,” Simo said. “The gold standard with impairment is blood. But what we’re seeing now with impairment studies is not related to a blood level. So blood is kind of out.”

The Department of Transportation has said that oral fluids can’t be used to measure if a person is impaired with THC, Simo said.

Researchers and developers in Germany and Austria are now looking at how fast a person’s pupil reacts. “That’s as good as it gets in the world,” Simo added.