Positive Marijuana Tests Among Drivers Grow at Alarming Rate

Pot and vape pen
Marijuana bud with cannabis oil in cartridge of vape pen. (KampolG via Getty Images)

[Stay on top of transportation news: Get TTNews in your inbox.]

Nearly 41,000 truck drivers tested positive for marijuana in 2022, a 32% increase over 2021, according to a report recently compiled from data in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse.

The new report shows that more than 100,000 truck drivers have tested positive for marijuana since FMCSA opened the Clearinghouse on Jan. 6, 2020. Truck drivers who test positive for marijuana — and other drugs — are prohibited from driving, and must enter a “return-to-work” process and retest to get back behind the wheel.

Cocaine, methamphetamines and amphetamines placed second, third and fourth, respectively, among substances accounting for the most truck driver drug-test failures. The top four drugs accounted for 90% of the 177,376 total positive test results in the three-year history of the Clearinghouse. The agency tests for a total of 14 substances.

“Unfortunately, the number of marijuana positives in the Clearinghouse continues to trend in the wrong direction,” said Dan Horvath, vice president of safety policy for American Trucking Associations. “When you take into account legalization efforts across the country, coupled with misinformation about when marijuana use is legal or not, I’m not at all surprised. The simple fact is not a thing has changed with regard to this DOT-regulated industry — specifically, CDL holders.”

Drug chart

The rising numbers of positive marijuana tests underscore concerns raised earlier this month by the National Transportation Safety Board. In a report, the NTSB recommended that the Department of Transportation add a warning label to cannabis products regarding the potential for driving impairment, make enhancements to state drug-impaired driving laws, and standardize technology testing for the detection of drug use.

As of Jan. 4, 91,000 of the more than 166,000 drivers who failed at least one drug test have yet to enroll in the return-to-work process. Only about 46,000 have completed the process and are eligible to drive again.

Experts have said that the trucking industry needs some sort of field-sobriety test for marijuana, similar to those that judge a driver’s possible alcohol impairment. Currently, law enforcement officers can be trained to recognize impairment, but they do not have a way to confirm marijuana use at roadside.

“We’ve long known about the devastating impact of alcohol-impaired driving, but this [NTSB] report shows that impairment from other drugs, especially cannabis, is a growing concern that needs to be addressed,” said NTSB board member Tom Chapman.

Drug chart

The American Transportation Research Institute has begun research on the breadth and effects of marijuana decriminalization on the trucking industry, according to ATRI Vice President Jeff Short. The results of the research are expected to be made public sometime in 2023, he said.

The stakes for the trucking industry as legalization efforts expand are high; a truck driver caught using marijuana risks losing his or her job, and any use of marijuana is a regulatory violation that can result in significant legal liability for a motor carrier. Plus, the fact that so many drivers are not enrolling in return-to-duty programs could be exacerbating an already critical driver shortage.

Short said the ATRI research will focus on trends including where marijuana is legal, how many people live in states that have legalized it, and the percentage of truck drivers that live in states with legal marijuana.

“We’re going into workforce implications, putting out a survey to safety executives, overall company executives, human resources executives to see what their experiences are with hiring and with maintaining the workforce with testing as well as how many drivers hired in certain states are having difficulties,” he said.

Short added that he cannot currently say why truck drivers in large numbers seem to be choosing not to return to work after flunking their drug tests.

“You can speculate that there is a strong job market, and it may just be easier — instead of going through that [return-to-work] process — to go to a place where testing might not be required or where it’s simply not as strict,” he said.

Short added, “I believe this research will shine a light on that. We are going to be asking trucking executives about that very thing, along with dozens of other questions.”

Want more news? Listen to today's daily briefing below or go here for more info: