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No-drug policies left up to truckers

Regulations still on U.S. to-do list

Amid a national crisis of opiate drug addiction, the trucking industry is still waiting for the U.S. Department of Transportation to strengthen its commercial drug testing policies.

For now, it's up to trucking companies to regulate opiate abuse among their drivers. But without a federal law, positive results for certain opiates are not shared with other commercial transportation companies.

The Department of Health and Human Services amended its list of banned drugs for employees to include the four most abused opiates -- oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydromorphone and hydrocodone. The transportation department has said it will adopt the Health and Human Services policy.

In proposed budgets, lawmakers have said Department of Transportation funding will include appropriations for a national clearinghouse to include the results of hair tests on truck drivers, so companies can share the results throughout the industry.

Both chambers of Congress must agree on a budget to be approved by President Donald Trump, who has promised on the campaign trail more infrastructure investment and fewer industry regulations.

"We want to make sure drivers who are coming into our fleets are not using these drugs," said Abigail Potter, manager of safety and occupational health for the American Trucking Associations , which supports both hair testing and the prohibition of the four major opiates.

Department of Transportation data show positive drug test results rose from 2015 to 2016. The results do not include the four most widely abused opiates.

For now, drivers will continue giving urine samples. Companies such as J.B. Hunt Transportation Services and Maverick USA require urine and hair tests. Wal-Mart declined to comment on its drug testing policy for its fleet of drivers.

"It is imperative to recognize hair testing as a viable option in assessing commercial truck driver job applicants," Maverick company officials wrote in an email.

The case for hair tests is rooted in the length of time a drug remains in one's hair. Hair tests can trace drug use for up to three months, while urine tests reach back about a month.

Marrlin Transit in Van Buren has a zero-tolerance policy for drug use, including the four major opiates. All of its roughly 63 commercial drivers -- including some in the garage who move the rigs -- must pass a urine test before going to work. They're also subject to random tests. And any time there is a crash, they'll have to pass another.

If the results come back positive, they are immediately fired. Drivers on the road are told to pull over, and another driver is routed to pick up and haul the load to its destination. CalArk International has an identical policy.

Companies like these have vested interests in keeping drug users off the road: having drivers pull over costs them more logistics dollars, and highway accidents are bad for public relations and consumer safety in general.

"Our company is in favor of hair testing, because it's more accurate," CalArk Vice President of safety Dennis Hilton said.

But many companies have not yet adopted hair testing because, while the range is wider than urine samples, hair samples are still imperfect.

Laura Coberley of Marrlin is responsible for organizing drug tests for drivers. She attended an industry conference where the merits of hair testing were debated. It was there she learned there have been cases of one's urine test showing positive while a hair test showed negative.

She made clear, however, her company is not opposed to hair tests, and will abide by any law imposed by the government.

"We don't even mind the extra cost if it's going to keep things safer on the road," Coberley said, noting that in her six years with the company, she's only seen one positive test.

If a driver in Arkansas applies for a job, they are subject to background checks, including any history of positive drug tests over the past three years, the threshold of the Arkansas Drug Testing Database. If they've tested positive for any banned substance in the past three years, they cannot be hired, Coberley said.

At Maverick, which tests for the four major opiates, a driver is immediately fired for positive results of drugs. At CalArk, drivers who fail drug tests are referred to substance abuse counselors, costing the company a $150 referral fee per case. The driver has to pay for the cost of the counseling, which is required if they are to return to the road.

Coberley said that if ahead of a drug test an employee tells her they'll fail or are using one of the banned substances, the company is legally required to refer them to treatment centers.

Though Arkansas law supports medical cannabis, and other states have allowed recreational use, the Department of Transportation prohibits marijuana use for commercial drivers.

"The policy to the driver has not changed, so we don't get a lot of questions from them," Hilton from CalArk said. "We just basically tell them upfront, even though other states have approved and implemented medical marijuana, you are putting your career at risk if you do it."

SundayMonday Business on 07/16/2017

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