The state of Illinois has now joined the more than 20 other states that have approved the compassionate use of medical cannabis. The law is intended to protect qualified patients and caregivers from arrest for using marijuana to treat debilitating medical conditions. However, many jobs still prohibit the use of marijuana for employees, regardless of whether they are using cannabis for recreational or medical purposes. Now some employees are finding themselves facing unemployment, caught between their jobs and their medical conditions.
The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act established Illinois medical marijuana law, which went into effect January 1, 2014. However, it was not until recently that approved medical marijuana dispensaries opened their doors. Now businesses are dealing with the realities of decriminalized medical marijuana use amongst their employees. In response, many employers are changing their drug policies to make them even more strict against marijuana use.
A survey cited in the Chicago Tribune found that in state with medical marijuana laws, only 22% of employers have exceptions for employees uses of medical marijuana. 73% of employees say that marijuana use at work is not permitted for any reason, regardless of their medical treatment claims. The survey of 623 companies across more than 20 states was conducted by the Society for Human Resources Management
The law under the pilot program prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees for simply having a medical cannabis patient card. However, employers can still have zero-tolerance drug policies, including the use of marijuana. That means that if an employee who has state approval for using medical marijuana, a positive drug test would still mean they can be fired.
Unlike race, sex, or sexual orientation, Illinois law does not carve out a protection against hiring or firing an individual based on medical marijuana use. Illinois is an “at-will” employment state, meaning that either the employer or employee may terminate the relationship for no reason at all. For some employers, the decision comes down to insurance liability concerns, where an employee may be injured or get into an accident while under the influence of marijuana.
Medical marijuana use is still complicated even in states where it has been legalized. It can still be heavily regulated, and recreational use remains unlawful. Despite all the national changes in how marijuana is treated, including legalization for recreational use in Washington D.C., federal laws have not responded. Marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the same classification as heroin.
The majority of respondents to the survey did not make any significant changes to their company's drug policy despite the legal changes. While a minority of employers are adapting to the new laws by making their drug policies less restrictive. Still, 32% of employers in the states where medical marijuana is legal do not even give medical marijuana users the chance to perform on the job, refusing to hire users of marijuana for whatever purpose.
If you or someone you know has been demoted or fired for seeking out medical marijuana treatment, you should speak with an experienced attorney who understands employment law cases. At Benassi & Benassi, we are committed to getting our clients the justice they deserve and equal treatment under the law.