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SF taxi drug testing to exempt medical marijuana

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A newly approved drug testing policy for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency exempts taxi drivers who have a valid recommendation for medical marijuana. (Kevin Kelleher/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Whether taxi drivers can light up and puff marijuana on their off hours was the topic of intense discussion Tuesday for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors.

The board voted unanimously to approve drug testing for taxi drivers at the meeting.

In a win for cabbies who opposed the measure, however, the board amended the resolution to exempt sanctions for taxi drivers who have a valid medical marijuana recommendation.

As the San Francisco Examiner previously reported, the drug tests would be required when taxi drivers renew their cab permits with The City, apply for a new permit, after having an accident and if there is reasonable suspicion of drug use, according to the resolution.

Some taxi industry professionals said such a requirement, if it included marijuana, would penalize hundreds of taxi drivers who would then instead drive for Uber and Lyft.

The director of SFMTA’s taxi and accessible services, Kate Toran, said the purpose of the resolution is to bring San Francisco’s taxi industry in line with a California government code requiring drug testing of taxi drivers, which was enacted in 1996.

The SFMTA board passed the drug testing measure as proposed — but with a caveat.

A driver who tests positive for drugs will be suspended. Drivers who test positive for marijuana, however, may present the SFMTA with a valid “recommendation or approval” for medical marijuana, in which case their suspension will be lifted.

One cab driver, Tom Diesso, told the board in public comment that he had smoked marijuana before, and that he is accident-free. However, he felt the taxi industry should “step up” and be drug tested.

“My only concern is my fellow drivers [who are] up in age need marijuana to get them through the night with aches and pains,” he said. “I was hoping we could find some legal room here so they could perform their duty and not lose their jobs.”

Dale Gieringer, the director of marijuana advocacy group California NORML, told the board that no studies show regular marijuana use impairs driving safety.

“There’s no need or value for this in public safety whatsoever,” Gieringer said.

SFMTA chairman of the board Tom Nolan had his own concerns. “It’s legal in the state,” he said, concerning medical marijuana, and false positives could arise since “it stays in your system for a long time.”

Statewide worries also colored the discussions.

Transportation Network Companies, the legal designation for Uber and Lyft in California, are not held to the same standard of drug testing. Regulators require them to have zero tolerance drug policy, and are prompted, but not required, to test drivers only at the time of a rider complaint.

Toran noted there are state efforts to change this, including state Assembly Bill 24. But San Francisco’s lack of drug testing for taxis is frequently touted politically as a reason why TNC drivers should not be drug tested, she said.

Board director Cheryl Brinkman put up the motion to amend the drug testing policy to allow medical marijuana users to have sanctions lifted.

“To my mind that satisfies the concerns of the drivers and the public,” she said.
Of that change, Toran said “It does send the right message” to state policy makers.

Board member Malcolm Heinicke had reservations about the amendment. “I have my concerns about this. I have concerns about the whole thing,” he said.

He said he believed the amendment to exempt medical marijuana from consequences of drug testing would hurt statewide efforts to require TNC’s like Uber and Lyft to require drug testing. It “sends the wrong message,” he said.

The medical marijuana amendment passed with only two nays, from Heinicke and director Joel Ramos. The final resolution passed unanimously.

At the same meeting, the SFMTA board approved a contract with the Energetix Corporation to administer the drug tests, at a cost of $4.5 million for three years.

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