On December 3, 2012, the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Office of Drug and Alcohol Policy Compliance issued a Notice to address the recent passage of state initiatives purporting to legalize marijuana use for recreational purposes.

The DOT requires testing of applicants and employees in safety-sensitive transportation positions – such as pilots, truck drivers, train engineers, ship captains, school bus drivers, and pipeline emergency response personnel – for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, and phencyclidine (PCP). Applicants must be drug tested before they begin performing DOT-covered safety-sensitive duties, and employees must be drug tested in certain circumstances, including following an accident, randomly, and when reasonable suspicion of drug use exists. All confirmed positive drug tests are reviewed by a medical review officer (MRO). During that review process, the test subject is permitted to provide the MRO with information that would explain the positive test result, such as a prescription. If the test subject provides a legitimate medical explanation for the confirmed positive test result, then the MRO will report the test result to the (prospective) employer as verified negative. If the test subject does not provide a legitimate medical explanation, he or she must be removed from safety-sensitive duties and referred to a substance abuse professional for evaluation.

After the passage of medical marijuana laws by several states, the DOT took the position that an MRO may not report a confirmed positive test for marijuana as verified negative based on information that a physician recommended that the test subject use marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of a debilitating medical condition. In October 2009, the DOT's Office of Drug and Alcohol Policy Compliance issued a Notice stating that it “want[ed] to make it perfectly clear” that its drug and alcohol testing regulations “do[] not authorize ‘medical marijuana’ under a state law to be a valid medical explanation for a transportation employee’s positive drug test result.” The DOT emphasized that “marijuana remains a drug listed in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act” and that it “remains unacceptable for any safety-sensitive employee subject to drug testing under the [DOT’s] drug testing regulations to use marijuana.”

Not surprisingly, the DOT has responded similarly to the passage by Colorado and Washington of laws purporting to legalize marijuana use for recreational purposes. On December 3, 2012, the DOT's Office of Drug and Alcohol Policy Compliance issued a Notice stating that it “want[ed] to make it perfectly clear that the state initiatives will have no bearing on the [DOT’s] regulated drug testing program . . . [which] does not authorize the use of Schedule I drugs, including marijuana, for any reason. Therefore, [MROs] will not verify a drug test as negative based upon learning that the employee used ‘recreational marijuana’ when states have passed ‘recreational marijuana’ initiatives.” The DOT also took the opportunity to reiterate its position regarding medical marijuana use.

The bottom line is that applicants for and employees in safety-sensitive transportation positions will not be allowed to explain away a confirmed positive test for marijuana based on recreational or medical use purportedly authorized by state law.