Covering the trucking industry is like doing the color commentary on an endless, slow-motion game of Whac-A-Mole. There’s a set of issues, and they take turns popping up and vying for attention.
One small difference is, this game is usually manipulated by outside forces. Such was the case in the latter months of 2018, when elections in Canada and in Michigan legalized recreational marijuana use in those places.
This mellow, glassy-eyed mole pops up every time recreational cannabis use gets the green light somewhere, which is now 10 states plus all of Canada, re-raising the question whether professional truck drivers should be allowed to partake in cannabis when they are in one of those places and are off-duty.
This issue may not exactly be up there with, say, reworking the Hours of Service regulations or addressing the parking shortage, but it does briefly fire up passions from time to time.
As a journalist, it is my job to observe and report as a neutral third party. But that doesn’t mean I don’t privately form opinions about the issues and of the arguments being made for or against a given issue.
With almost every issue, both sides tend to go overboard. Those in the anti-marijuana camp (i.e., the entire trucking establishment) are quick to jump on any reasoning they can they can find to stem the spread of cannabis with a zealotry that’s only about a step shy of “Reefer Madness.”
“Just say no” rhetoric aside, when I put myself in a carrier’s shoes, I think they have legitimate reasons for being against cannabis, it’s just that some of those reasons would come off as a bit self-serving. From a practical business standpoint, I can’t see how marijuana legalization has an upside for the industry.
Currently, marijuana cannot be transported over state lines, even where both states allow its use. The way the marijuana industry is shaping up, the product is grown, processed and distributed in short proximity. But even if (and presumably when) interstate shipping is ever legal, I can’t see how cannabis will ever be a big-ticket item for trucking. On a retail basis, marijuana is sold in tiny quantities, fractions of an ounce at a time. America would collectively pass out on the sofa before it could create enough of a market that we would ever see rigs filled to the brim with cannabis products, even in short-haul.
That’s in contrast to all those big, heavy, easy-to-stack cases of booze and beer that are run all over the country. And there is the longstanding fear that legalized weed could cut into the alcohol market. There hasn’t been a ton of research or even anecdotal evidence to support this fear, but why court trouble?
What’s undeniable is it’s hard enough getting qualified truck drivers, and substance abuse is one of the leading disqualifiers among blue-collar employers, even with most of the drugs in question being used in an illegal manner.
Before working at The Trucker, between journalism gigs, I worked for a few months at a major home improvement chain. One of the managers there told me it took them 32 applications for every employee they hire who actually shows up for more than a shift or two. The biggest disqualifier, he said, was the drug screen.
Those who favor allowing drivers to partake (mostly drivers who wish to partake) suggest it’s a matter of personal liberty, that being denied the right to smoke dope is an assault on their dignity and their civil rights.
Somehow, I don’t foresee throngs singing “We Shall Overcome” in front of the Lincoln Memorial over it.
Some may say it isn’t fair to place a restriction like that on people in a given profession. I have two words for your consideration – Ricky Williams.
Remember him? He was one of the top running backs in the National Football League in the early 2000s, but he was also a world-class pot smoker. At the height of his career, facing a third drug suspension, he walked away from the league.
If you read up on him, you’ll see there was more to the story than that, but that’s the popular short version – he chose weed over NFL stardom.
He returned to the NFL a couple years later, but by his own estimation, his self-banishment cost him about $10 million. Now, that’s a man who likes his ganja. Since then, the NFL has eased up a bit on its stance on marijuana, but a positive test is still a punishable offense.
With the Super Bowl in recent memory, it may be hard to believe, but there are few professions of less real value to society than being a pro football player, and certainly they don’t hold the safety of thousands in their hands every time they do their job, like truck drivers do.
Safety is one of the strongest arguments the carriers make, although they often screw it up by overplaying their hand. Meanwhile, those who argue for pot smokers’ rights fail to acknowledge one thing they have in common with drinkers. For a certain percentage, that off-duty vice slowly creeps closer and closer to their on-duty hours, because they don’t or won’t recognize when they’re mildly under the influence.
I don’t want to share the road with someone who is even a little bit buzzed and operating an 18-wheeler, I don’t care what it’s on.
You want a closer comparison? How about pilots? Professional pilots can be drug-tested at any time, and if they test positive for marijuana, they are grounded and could even lose their license.
Being a truck driver may not have the glamour or the paycheck of being a star athlete or even a commercial pilot, but the job bears a tremendous amount of responsibility, and it is perfectly reasonable that the rules of the job are stricter than in other professions.
There are other jobs where they might not be so particular about your lifestyle habits – well, not professional pilot or hardware store clerk, we know that. It’s really a question of what you value most. Heck, Ricky Williams walked away from millions to toke in peace.
Of course, before anyone decides to follow in his footsteps, remember he already had millions, and he wound up making millions more. There is that to consider.
Klint Lowry has been a journalist for over 20 years. Prior to that, he did all kinds work, including several that involved driving, though he never graduated to big rigs. He worked at newspapers in the Detroit, Tampa and Little Rock, Ark., areas before coming to The Trucker in 2017. Having experienced such constant change at home and at work, he felt a certain kinship to professional truck drivers. Because trucking is more than a career, it’s a way of life, Klint has always liked to focus on every aspect of the quality of truckers’ lives.