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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.

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

Print Headline: Truckers wary of Rx-pot law rollout

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  • GCW
    February 18, 2017 at 8:17 a.m.

    That's right, let's legalize high truck drivers and limit our ability to sue when they run over us.

  • ozena
    February 18, 2017 at 12:25 p.m.

    A trial lawyer's bonanza!

    February 18, 2017 at 4:35 p.m.

    Legislators are Lawyers mostly, Legislators make rules to keep Lawyers Employed. Does anyone know what a bus half full of lawyers that goes over a Great Cliff, crashes and kills everyone is Called??? The Answer is Wasted Space.

  • ThisisInsane
    March 5, 2017 at 3:14 p.m.

    This is a hype. People have been driving on cannabis, since they started demonizing it. You have had high folks on the road all along. This is NOT a new thing, it's just politicians and the ignorant, reefer mad 'leadership' stirring up the public who have yet to educate themselves about the truth. The science. The govt sent over 5 million in taxpayer funds, to a scientist in Israel, so they could get the science they needed, and still keep us in the dark. Look back at the history of the causes of traffic mortality, and you'll see that it has ALWAYS been alcohol that has been blamed for those deaths. NHTSA has published stats after stats, saying so, for decades. Now because the prohibitionists are scared they are losing their cash cow, they have shifted tactics and a new substance the people use, to blame this crap on.
    The trucking industry has always drug tested, and I have been in that industry, so I know. How many truckers have died because they used too much speed to stay on schedule? Or to make up time? They have even tightened up the rules about the truckers' logs, so as to insure they get enough sleep. Yet, people still die. Four-wheelers still cut them off, and crashes still happen.
    People, you all need to wake up and see the mind control and brainwashing that you are all spouting. Of course, lawyers will always take care of lawyers, and they want you all to be afraid. They still have no clue, that they do not belong in the area of medicine. They need to stay out of the patient doctor relationship, and stop with the stupid, 'without-a-clue' limitations of dosage and what they think a patient needs. They are so clueless, as to sound less than professional. We have about twenty-eight states with legalized cannabis in one form or another, and five with adult use legalized. When that number reaches 34, it will force a Constitutional Convention, and will make Congress change the scheduling, and remove it from said schedule.
    The leadership is afraid, they are ignoring the GOP leaders who are supportive of cannabis, and are pressing on with this war on all of us. It infringes on each and every one of our lives, and if you can't see that, you are still asleep, which is where they want you.
    This not your fault, and it has been perpetrated by them behind closed doors. The perfect example is how they chopped up one law, got it removed from the ballot, and are in the process of rewriting the other one. Why do you even pass a law with voter approval, then make the substance illegal to use, throughout the entire state??? What a waste of legislative talent. This plant will bring in millions, tens of thousands of jobs, and help to pay for all the happy little projects these shysters want to do. They should all shut up, sit down, leave the cannabis to the doctors, scientists and patients who need it. The only thing most of you do not realize, it that this plant is beneficial to almost everyone no matter why you use it.