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Legal Marijuana Lowers Risk Of Truck Accidents: New Study

It’s the first study ever on the impact of Cannabis legalization upon the trucking industry. And, guess what? Good news.

Arkansas Trucking Association

It’s the first study ever on the impact of Cannabis legalization upon the trucking industry. And, guess what? It’s good news.

America’s $800 billion trucking industry has taken a largely adversarial approach to legal weed, reports Freight Waves. In 2020, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration launched a drug and alcohol clearinghouse. Major industry groups, such as the American Trucking Associations, pushed for its creation

The clearinghouse lists all commercial drivers who ever failed a drug or alcohol test. Drivers can only clear their names from the blacklist if they follow a return-to-duty process. The clearinghouse is aimed at punishing truckers who have violated drug or alcohol rules by making it harder to get another driving job.

Is Weed Testing Even Beneficial?

But it’s unclear just how beneficial testing has been to actual road safety. One thing is for sure: it has certainly removed plenty of truck drivers.

From January 2020 to April 2022, around 124,000 drivers were booted from commercial trucking due to failed drug tests. Around 31,000 have followed the return-to-duty procedure and are back on the road.

The vast majority of violations haven’t involved addictive and harmful drugs such as opioids, amphetamines, methamphetamine or cocaine. Nope, most of them were just for plain old weed. More than 74,000 truckers who tested positive for Cannabis have been removed from commercial driving since 2020.

Kicking Out Pot-Smoking Drivers Isn’t Such A Good Idea

A new study suggests the hyper-focus on kicking out pot-smoking drivers isn’t such a good idea.

A group of researchers from the University of Tennessee, University of Arkansas and Iowa State University found adult-use marijuana legalization actually reduced heavy truck accidents by 11% in the eight states studied. Six of the eight saw a decrease in truck accidents; just two saw increases. (Note that the study is a preprint, meaning it hasn’t undergone peer review yet.)

“We’re not saying definitively that legalization will reduce trucking accidents, but there is some evidence that legalization across the board doesn’t necessarily increase accidents,” said Iowa State University assistant professor Jonathan Phares. “There are reasons why accidents could decrease as a result of legalization.”

If subsequent research or peer review confirms the study, the academics involved suggest lawmakers revise the Department of Transportation’s zero-tolerance policy on off-duty marijuana use for truckera. 

The researchers studied truck crash statistics from 2005-2019 in eight states with legal, adult-use marijuana.

As we mentioned, six states saw decreases in crashes, while just two saw increases. Overall, crashes declined by 11%.

Here’s a table summarizing those effects:

“Limited Evidence Of A Slight Reduction In Crashes”

Medical marijuana legalization did not increase crashes, according to the study. Researchers actually found “limited evidence of a slight reduction in crashes” following the legalization of medical cannabis.

The researchers didn’t have a solid explanation for why legalized marijuana reduced crashes. But they did offer a couple of theories:

  • Those who normally drink alcohol may have switched to Cannabis. Research suggests driving while high is far less likely to cause a fatal accident than driving while drunk. (Of course, being sober is often the safest way to get behind the wheel.)
  • Marijuana is usually consumed at home, not at a bar or restaurant. 

While overall crashes reduced, two states did see an increase. To understand this, researchers compared Vermont, which saw the largest decrease in crashes, to Nevada, which saw the largest increase.

Phares, along with University of Arkansas communications specialist Ronald James Gordon provided these theories:

  • Vermont has far less tourism than Nevada. This means more people unfamiliar with Nevada’s roadways drive there. Travelers are also more likely to be using marijuana outside of the home — especially those visiting, for instance, Las Vegas. 
  • Vermont is also more densely populated than Nevada. Longer stretches of roads in Nevada provide more opportunity for crashes. 

Feds, Transportation Industry Double Down

Marijuana is legal for medical use in 37 states and fully legal in 19. It remains a federally-banned substance. Cannabidiol, more commonly called CBD, is federally legal.

Truck drivers who live in states where marijuana is legal still aren’t allowed to partake. CBD can occasionally show up as THC on drug tests, so many drivers avoid using it. But truck drivers can legally get behind the wheel with a blood alcohol level of 0.04%. 

The federal government and transportation industry at large have doubled down on kicking out drivers who use drugs. It’s probably smart to pull drivers off the road who may be under the influence of cocaine, meth, opioids and other hard drugs. But the blacklist, I mean the “clearinghouse,” has indiscriminately pushed out even those who not even be under the influence of marijuana at the time of testing. 

Urine Tests Detect Metabolites, Not Impairment

There’s one major roadblock to ceasing marijuana testing while still cracking down on other substances. Currently there is no way to test if someone is actively under the influence of Cannabis the same way as for alcohol. Urine tests detect marijuana metabolites. They can reflect Cannabis use from weeks ago, while much more dangerous and harmful drugs only appear for hours or days. 

There are smarter ways to reduce truck crashes.

Tackling our decaying infrastructure or investing in training would be far more effective in saving lives. According to a Department of Transportation study, illegal drugs contributed to 2% of all accidents between an 18-wheeler and passenger car. Meanwhile, brake problems (a factor in 29% of crashes), speeding (23%), unfamiliarity with roadways (22%) and roadway issues (20%) were far more common.

Driver Shortage

Cracking down on marijuana use also means the trucking industry is severely limiting who it may recruit, especially among Generation Zs or millennials. Around 22% of Americans under 30 smoke marijuana, according to a 2019 Gallup poll.

The American Trucking Association previously said the high average age of truck drivers is “one of the largest factors” for what they characterize as a driver shortage in the tens of thousands.

Meanwhile, Wells Fargo recently named marijuana testing as a leading cause of the driver shortage.

Truckers Can’t Even Use Weed Medicinally

Doctors have authorized more than 3 million Americans to use Cannabis medically, according to a 2021 Florida Gulf Coast University study. About 65% reduced or discontinued their use of another over-the-counter medication, with anxiety, stress and chronic pain cited as the leading ailments they use marijuana to treat. 

But truck drivers can’t use weed to treat their own health ailments — even if they are using it legally and off duty. It’s a legitimate cause for concern, especially considering the health issues that affect drivers.

Among drivers’ most common issuers are musculoskeletal pain and “significant issues affecting their mental health.”

Holding Back The Industry

Meanwhile, drivers are far less likely than the average employed American to visit a doctor or have health insurance. Truckers also are at an increased risk for most lifestyle diseases, such as lung cancer and diabetes, than the average adult. 

Many transportation analysts, and probably most drivers, believe the marijuana divide between truckers and the rest of the country is holding back the industry. 

“Guys on prescription meds are still rolling, alcohol is dominant, and the thing that might relax the drivers? Forget it,” said one anonymous trucker. “The industry is rooted in the mindset of the previous century, so alcohol and prescription drugs are accepted.”

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