Changing mores and laws on marijuana use are creating difficult situations for all transportation workers, including those on the inland waterways. As we noted recently, nearly half of all U.S. states—38 according to the Marijuana Policy Project—have now legalized medical use of marijuana, while 22 states have legalized its recreational use. Yet it remains classified as a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Unlike alcohol, which flushes from the human body quickly, marijuana builds up in fatty tissues and remains detectable in urine tests for far longer, up to 67 days.
The American Waterways Operators, along with virtually every other organization representing transportation companies and workers in rail, trucking and air transport, endorsed a recently developed oral fluid test as an alternative. The test detects marijuana use within roughly the past 24 hours, with some testing companies saying results may be detectable as long as 72 hours. It was ruled valid by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Science in 2019 and is under consideration by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). A final rulemaking, initially expected in December 2022, was never issued. If approved by the DOT, the Coast Guard would also have to approve the testing for it to be valid on the nation’s waterways.
Worker recruitment and retention is the immediate concern in all those industries, including ours. Workers in states that allow medical and/or recreation marijuana use do not always understand that those substances are still scheduled and regulated in federal law. Many have grown up in a world in which pot use was tolerated if not legal under state laws until recently.
But the oral fluid test is only one interim step. What we really need is scientific answers about what levels of dosage and tissue retention correlate with impairment. It’s astounding and disheartening that after decades of increasingly tolerated and legalized marijuana use, we still don’t have those answers. If and when we get them, it should be up to Congress and federal agencies—not the states—to come up with rules and guidelines for transportation industries about safe doses and amounts. They also need to address the completely unregulated markets for cannabis oil and supplements, whose products also cause positive tests.