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DOT to audit drug-testing policies over ‘epidemic of impairment’ caused by marijuana legalization

December 20, 2018

The U.S. Department of Transportation plans to review existing drug-testing policies in light of marijuana decriminalization contributing to an “epidemic of impairment,” an agency watchdog wrote in a memorandum released Wednesday.

Barry J. DeWeese, the DOT’s assistant inspector general for surface transportation audit, cited marijuana legalization, among other factors, in a memo raising safety concerns related to railway workers increasingly testing positive for drugs.

“Preventing accidents in railroad operations that result from employees’ chemical impairment is a critical part of ensuring the safety of the traveling public,” Mr. DeWeese wrote in a memo sent to employees of the Federal Railroad Administration, the DOT office responsible for enforcing railroad regulations.

“According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) 2017-2018 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements, the decriminalization of marijuana, along with the increased popularity of dangerous synthetic drugs and a significant rise in the use and abuse of prescription medication and alcohol, have led to an epidemic of impairment in transportation,” he added.

Released in Nov. 2016, the NTSB list said that marijuana decriminalization along with increasing use of synthetic drugs and prescription medication abuse had created “a more complex problem than ever” and an “epidemic of impairment in transportation.”

Twenty-five states and the nation’s capital had enacted laws legalizing marijuana for either medicinal or recreational purposes as of November 2016, notwithstanding the plant’s status as a federally prohibited controlled substance. Several others have followed suit, however, and around 95 percent of the country’s population currently lives within 33 states and counting where marijuana is allowed in spite of federal prohibition.

“The Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Office of Railroad Safety has set minimum Federal safety standards for FRA-regulated employees’ use of alcohol and drugs,” Mr. DeWeese wrote in a memo announcing the review Tuesday. “However, fatal accidents linked to drug and alcohol impairment as well as reports of the climbing percentage of railway workers testing positive for drug use have called attention to the importance of FRA’s oversight of drug and alcohol testing.”

“Given the importance of drug and alcohol testing to protecting transportation safety, our office is conducting a series of reviews on drug testing programs within the transportation industry,” Mr. DeWeese wrote.

The objectives of the audit are to assess both FRA’s existing alcohol and drug testing program plans, as well as “controls for enforcing compliance with the plans and minimum annual random alcohol and drug testing standards,” he added.

The audit is slated to start immediately, Mr. DeWeese wrote.

In April 2016, an Amtrak train struck a backhoe south of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, killing two railroad workers and injuring 39 passengers, Mr. DeWeese noted. The engineer and both workers subsequently tested positive for drugs, he added.

The Washington Post reported in September 2016 that the overall number of railway workers who tested positive for drug use during random tests had climbed by 43 percent, he noted.

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