The trucking industry is grappling with how Arkansas' recent legalization of medical marijuana will affect it.
While commercial drivers license holders are strictly regulated at the federal level, the Arkansas Legislature is left to work out how other "safety sensitive" positions across all industries will be affected.
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The Department of Transportation, which regulates interstate commerce, explicitly forbids anyone who has tested positively for marijuana in their system from driving a commercial motor vehicle.
Jim Swart, then director of policy and compliance for the office of drug and alcohol at the department, said in a 2009 release that the existing federal regulation "does not authorize 'medical marijuana' under a state law to be a valid medical explanation for a transportation employee's positive drug test result."
[BILL TRACKER: See the status of all marijuana-related bills in Arkansas Legislature]
As Laura Coberley, safety manager at Van Buren-based Marrlin Transit said, "It's just a shut door." She said none of her drivers have asked about it because, "I think they pretty much already know the answer."
That does not mean the industry will not feel effects from this new law.
"From a business perspective, it's a negative impact on the workforce," said David O'Neal, safety director at the Arkansas Trucking Association, which publicly opposed the proposition on November's ballot.
"For every person who uses a medical marijuana card, that's one less person who can qualify to be a truck driver or work in another safety sensitive position. The industry desperately needs qualified, safe drivers."
The trucking industry has been historically plagued by a dearth of drivers. The American Trucking Associations expects the national driver shortage to hit 175,000 by 2024.
Colorado legalized medical marijuana in 2000 and recreational use of marijuana in 2012. Patti Gillette, vice president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, has watched the industry in her state grapple with the changes over the years.
"As an industry we've been working on a lot of education, outreach to our carriers and our drivers, that even though you've got a medical marijuana card, you still can't drive a truck."
Gillette said they "lost a lot of good drivers the first two months it was legalized for recreational use," though since then the number of lost drivers has "normalized."
"We noticed a huge increase in positive drug rates among the drivers in random screenings," she said. "People didn't realize that just because it's legal, you still can't use it and drive."
"You can have a legal prescription for something and still be abusing it," O'Neal said.
"You can have a card, but you still can't come to work impaired. I think employers are challenged under that today with prescription drugs and will still be challenged by [that] under the medical marijuana amendment," he said.
Medical marijuana joins an existing list of prescription medications that commercial drivers cannot use on the job, like anti-seizure medication, methadone and other legal opiates.
Butch Rice, president and chief executive officer of Stallion Transportation Group in Beebe, agreed that it is a nonissue for his drivers. However, for his nondriving employees, like technicians and dispatchers, "It's a wait-and-see approach right now."
"At this point we're just going to have to sit back and wait and see what the state comes up with in terms of new regulations, guidelines and parameters," he said.
O'Neal explained the rules are "clear cut for drivers. Not so much elsewhere."
There are have been about two dozen pieces of legislation in Little Rock related to regulating medical marijuana this session. The list includes House Bill 1460, which addresses the issue of "safety sensitive positions."
The bill proposes that employers may classify their employees' positions as "safety sensitive" and may terminate or reassign those employees they believe in "good faith" to be "under the influence" on the job.
"When you say it's OK to have medical marijuana under certain conditions, we don't want people to think that means you can come to work and create an unsafe situation for yourself and everybody else," explained Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, who co-sponsored the bill.
David Couch, a Little Rock attorney who sponsored the voter-approved marijuana amendment, said the bill's broad terminology could have far-reaching effects. "I understand what they're trying to do and why they're doing it, this just is not the way to do it."
Couch argued that the original amendment already specifies that employers do not have to "accommodate the ingestion of marijuana in a workplace or an employee working under the influence of marijuana."
He explained that because the definitions of "good faith belief" in the bill have "very loose standards," an employer has a lot of flexibility to enforce it. He cited the bill's mention that "good faith belief" can be based, for example, on "information reasonably believed to be reliable or accurate" or "information from reputable reference sources in print or on the Internet."
"It's doing nothing other than saying they can fire you if you have a medical marijuana card," he said.
"It's designed to make people have to choose between having a job or a marijuana card and to give the employer protections for not hiring somebody or firing somebody for having a medical marijuana card."
"It's a back-door attempt at trying to do away with the majority of the program," Couch said.
Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, the bill's sponsor, disagreed. "You can have a medical marijuana card, and you can be employed, but you can't come to work impaired and you can't jeopardize the safety of your colleagues," he said.
The bill states that employers may not discriminate "based upon the applicant's or employee's past or present status as qualifying patient or designated caregiver."
Wing said he feels "very good" about the bill's prospects and hopes to see it move out of the rules committee next week.
Business on 02/18/2017