U.S. officials take on state marijuana laws Transportation workers told federal rules apply


WASHINGTON -- In their most specific response yet to California's marijuana initiative, federal officials warned yesterday that under federal law, a doctor's prescription does not excuse pilots, engineers or bus and truck drivers who test positive for drugs.

"If you are entrusted with the safety of the traveling public and you test positive, these propositions don't mean a thing," said Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena. "You will be removed."

The initiative, approved Nov. 5., would make marijuana legal for medicinal purposes.

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the White House office of National Drug Control Policy, said the warning to transportation workers is just the first in a series of federal responses to California's Proposition 215 and to a similar ballot initiative approved by Arizona voters. Other responses will be issued in a package before Christmas, he said at a White House briefing.

The administration is rolling out the announcements with much fanfare, in part because of criticism that the White House failed to fight drugs aggressively during President Clinton's first term, when surveys showed that drug use doubled among youths ages 12 to 17.

The transportation warning does not represent a change in federal law. Rather, it serves as a reminder for operators of public transport that the California and Arizona propositions will not protect them from federal requirements.

Drug testing of 8 million transportation industry employees nationwide -- from school bus drivers to airline pilots -- has been required by the U.S. government since 1988. Employees are tested before being hired, are subject to random testing throughout their employment and are tested if they are involved in serious accidents.

California officials and supporters of Proposition 215 said the White House announcement was an empty gesture.

"We're glad to see that the federal government reads the law the same way we do," said Steve Telliano, a spokesman for California Attorney General Dan Lungren. "This is in line with what they've always said -- that the state law will not affect federal rules and policies."

"This is unsurprising non-news," said Dave Fratello, a spokesman for Americans for Medical Rights, the group that sponsored Proposition 215. "To say that federal laws still apply doesn't surprise anybody. To say safety rules still apply is obvious to anyone who read the proposition's text. It certainly doesn't invite abuse by airline pilots, truckers, bus drivers and railroad workers."

McCaffrey, who had campaigned against the initiatives, said yesterday that they are "a threat to the national drug strategy." They call into question the U.S. commitment to fight drugs, and Mexican officials working with the United States to fight the drug trade "are enormously disappointed" by the initiatives, he said.

The main worries, he added, are that the propositions will lead to increased drug use among children and teen-agers, and undermine the Food and Drug Administration's jurisdiction over the approval and certification of medications.

Pub Date: 12/13/96

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