Drug testing could hinder driver shortage progress

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Capital News Service 

LANSING – Drug test regulations are posing problems in filling vacant public bus driver positions.

The executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, Clark Harder, said there are statewide driver shortages. 

Harder said local agencies share the same problem: “The biggest hurdle that transit agencies face in hiring and staffing, particularly on the driver front, is that drivers have to pass alcohol and drug tests.”

The requirement to be drug free is necessary, but still creates barriers to recruitment and retention, Harder said.

“You want the people driving large buses properly screened. But it’s making it very difficult for us to lure people into driving transit vehicles because the requirements are much more stringent than for other jobs,” he said.

Heidi Wenzel, the director of transportation for the city of Ionia, said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates alcohol and marijuana testing of drivers. 

“There’s pre-employment testing, random testing, reasonable suspicion and post-accident testing,” she said. 

Wenzel said the biggest problems agencies are seeing stem from the legalization of marijuana in Michigan. While consumption of marijuana is legal, if it’s found in a bus driver’s drug test it could be grounds for termination because of federal standards. 

“No matter what you have in your system, whether it’s medical (marijuana), whether you use CBD oil that has THC in it, it’s not regulated in terms of the content. You can’t guarantee that you’re not going to get any THC in those oils, so it flat out does not matter,” Wenzel said. 

THC is the main psychoactive component in marijuana and is derived from cannabis plants.

According to the Michigan Cannabis Regulatory Agency, THC is responsible for the temporary alteration of one’s psychological state.

Wenzel said marijuana is unique because it stays for a long time in the user’s system, and the presence of any THC from CBD products could cause a failed drug test, Wenzel.

Scott Borg, the transportation director for Harbor Transit in Harbor Springs, said the rules around drug testing deter some people from applying for driver positions.

But, the rules are in place for a valid purpose, Borg said.

“For the safety of the general public, we need to have strict laws to prevent use of drugs. Not only does the drug test cover alcohol but it covers narcotics in the system,” Borg said.

Harbor Light suffered bus driver shortages due to COVID-19 but is currently back to full staff, he said. 

Wenzel said there was attention on revising the testing law when marijuana was legalized. 

“There was talk when first legalizing medical marijuana for regular recreational consumption about the impact that it would have on industries,” she said.

Meanwhile, there are some movements federally to change the way drivers are tested.

In May, the U.S. Department of Transportation revised its rules on the types of tests that can be performed and amended the program to include oral testing.

Wenzel said that formerly, testing was allowed only by urine sample.

“There’s some traction and understanding of the impact of marijuana. Even though it’s not affecting you anymore, most other substances are going to show up and attach after just a shorter period of time,” Wenzel said.

Wenzel said everybody has an opinion on drug testing.

“You don’t know how things are going to impact drivers. You have a lot of different arguments towards different components of marijuana,” she said. “But for me, it’s contemporaneous. Are you under the influence? Is it an immediate impact on your ability to do your job?” 

Harder, of the Public Transit Association, said drivers don’t think about what they’re doing when they use marijuana, and that can cost them their jobs.

“Because you smoked a joint three weeks ago, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re incapable of driving a vehicle. But that is a standard that we have to deal with in the industry. And it’s problematic for us,” he said.

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