Navigating drug testing requirements as state laws increasingly conflict with federal regs

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Updated Jan 18, 2018
Despite new a new state law on marijuana screening for employees and job applicants, truck drivers must still face random drug tests to hold a CDL.Despite new a new state law on marijuana screening for employees and job applicants, truck drivers must still face random drug tests to hold a CDL.

In one of the first laws of its kind, Maine has enacted rules that forbid the state’s employers from firing employees or refusing job applicants for testing positive for marijuana use. The laws, handed down by the state’s Department of Labor and slated to take effect in February, allow employees to file discrimination-based lawsuits should an employer fire employees or turn away applicants based on the results of marijuana-positive drug tests.

While Maine’s new laws highlight an example of the growing rift between federal and state laws on the issue and questions about employee drug screening, the issue is clear for carriers and drivers, says Tim Doyle, vice president of the Maine Motor Transport Association. “We see it as straightforward and simple: You can’t use marijuana and drive a commercial motor vehicle — period,” says Doyle.

MMTA, an affiliate of the American Trucking Associations, in recent months has fielded questions from both its member carriers and drivers operating in the state, says Doyle, “because the information is confusing.”

“Drivers do call and say, ‘Hey, I have a medical marijuana card,’ or ‘If it’s legal can I use and still drive?’ The answer is no. You are still prohibited from using marijuana.”

Maine is one of eight states nationwide that have opened its doors to the emerging marijuana industry, allowing storefronts to sell cannabis products and state residents to possess and use them. Some 29 other states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use. Still, says Joe Rajkovacz of the Western States Trucking Association, federal law requires drivers to pass a drug test, including screening negative for marijuana, to hold a CDL. “Federal drug testing laws trump what the states are doing,” he says. “The feds are the ones that set drug and alcohol testing procedures, return-to-duty practices — this all comes from the federal government. And it’s not just for trucking. Almost all modes of transportation — pipelines, vessel operators, airlines — they all face the same DOT-imposed drug testing requirements.”

Western States represents carriers in four states — California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada — that have legalized marijuana. While Maine’s law forbidding employers from taking action against workers and job applicants is unique at the state-level, cities in California have been making moves toward that end too, says Rajkovacz. “San Fransicsco, in particular, doesn’t even allow random drug testing of employees. With that said, for trucking, none of that stuff matters — what the states do, what these cities do,” he said. “Look, you can party. You can do what you want. You just can’t drive a truck. It’s that simple.”

The U.S. DOT issued a memo in 2012, following referendums in California and Washington that legalized marijuana outright, stating that marijuana use remained off limits for truck operators. Responding to queries from Overdrive in November 2016 (following successful legalization votes in more states) and again this month, the DOT says its stance hasn’t changed. Any changes to federal drug testing policy for truck drivers would need to start with the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, the DOT said.

Requests for comment to the ONDCP were not returned.

Even drivers operating exclusively intrastate within states that have legalized marijuana are still subject to federal drug screening requirements, including random drug tests, says Rajkovacz. “The feds dictate to the states that [drivers] must do this to drive a commercial vehicle. It’s a federal requirement to operate a vehicle above 26,000 pounds — you have to be in a drug testing program.”