Trucking regs trump state laws on marijuana use

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 4/4/2013

Consider this a courtesy reminder if you operate a commercial vehicle and live or work in a state that legalizes medical or recreational use of marijuana. Federal drug regulations trump the state laws if you operate a commercial truck, bus, train or plane. It’s that simple.

Agencies and associations continue to handle questions about the legal use of marijuana and operating a motor vehicle including CMVs in certain states.

A bill in the Colorado state Senate is stirring up another round of questions. If passed, HB13-1114 would create a legal threshold and define driving under the influence of the chemical THC.

The bill would establish a legal THC threshold at 5 nanograms per millileter of blood. Lawmakers say that amount compares to alcohol standards that law enforcement agencies use to determine if a driver is impaired.

The legal threshold for truckers is zero. And in case you’re still wondering, the regs don’t care about prescribed medical use.

“Don’t use it, because your state does not override federal requirements and federal documentation and laws,” says Steve Nickell, customer service representative for OOIDA’s drug testing consortium CMCI.

The feds keep cannabis on the Schedule 1 list of controlled substances, and current law prohibits a person from performing safety-sensitive functions while using anything on Schedule 1.

“We want to make it perfectly clear that the state initiatives will have no bearing on the Department of Transportation’s regulated drug testing program,” the DOT states in a policy notice. “The Department of Transportation’s Drug and Alcohol Testing Regulation – 49 CFR Part 40 – does not authorize the use of Schedule I drugs, including marijuana, for any reason.”

Testing positive for THC has ramifications for the commercial operator.

“Once you test positive, you can no longer do anything that’s considered a safety-sensitive function until you’ve gone through the return-to-duty process,” Nickell says.

That process consists of an interview, education and a return-to-duty drug test observed by the DOT. A driver or operator then must submit to a half-dozen followup tests in the first year back.

“If you ever fail one of those, you’ve got to go back to square one and start the process all over again like you’d never started,” Nickell said.

Truckers may wonder about the role of the medical review officer, or MRO, in all of this. Typically, an MRO can mark a drug test as “negative” if the driver’s doctor has prescribed certain medications and clears that driver to operate a vehicle.

But the MRO is bound by federal law against verifying a “negative” test when THC is involved.

The Department of Justice defines this in the regs.

“Medical Review Officers will not verify a drug test as negative based upon information that a physician recommended that the employee use ‘medical marijuana,’” the DOJ states.

“It remains unacceptable for any safety-sensitive employee subject to drug testing under the Department of Transportation’s drug testing regulations to use marijuana.”

Nickell says most trucking professionals are clued in, but the Association still fields calls about the drug and alcohol regs and who has the final say. It’s not the doctors and it’s not a particular state law. It’s the federal regs.

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