When Legal Cannabis and Employer Rights Clash

There are currently thirty-eight states with legal cannabis programs in place. All of them allow medical cannabis; eighteen also allow recreational use. It is expected that the twelve hold-out states will eventually legalize cannabis as well. In the meantime, we are starting to see efforts to address the fall-out when legal cannabis and employer rights clash.

Illinois is the latest state to take up the question of how much leeway employers should have in determining whether their employees use cannabis off the job. The state House of Representatives just passed a bill that would protect worker rights to some extent. It is not a perfect bill, but it is a starting point.

Legalization Has Consequences

While Illinois lawmakers try to figure out how to get a Senate bill passed, they are also grappling with the reality that cannabis legalization has consequences. Legalization automatically puts cannabis users at odds with employers trying to protect their businesses and maintain compliance with federal law. Employers are caught in a no-win situation.

Under the Illinois proposal, employers would no longer be able to discriminate against workers who use cannabis away from work. There are some exceptions, such as an employee whose drug test reveals a level of cannabis that exceeds the state’s legal limit for driving. In such a case, the employee could be terminated.

Despite its exceptions, the law would give workers an advantage. It would take an awful lot for an employer to fire a worker for using cannabis, especially if the employee’s cannabis consumption clearly does not affect their work performance.

A Similar Bill in Utah

The owners of Deseret Wellness, a Utah medical cannabis pharmacy in Park City, say state lawmakers recently passed a similar bill in the Beehive State. The significant difference with their bill is that it only applies to public sector workers. Private employers in the state still have the discretion to enforce their own cannabis consumption policies.

Utah’s law was partly motivated by a local firefighter facing termination for using medical cannabis. The firefighter did not use at work, but any positive test would still have meant his termination. State lawmakers decided that this was nothing more than discrimination. They wrote and passed a law specifically to stop at.

Discrimination Is the Issue

Whether you are talking Illinois or Utah, discrimination is the alleged issue in the debate between legalization and employer rights. But is it really? On one hand, thirty-eight states have given the green light to cannabis consumption. On the other hand, private business owners should have the right to operate their businesses as they see fit.

The sticking point seems to be whether cannabis consumption affects job performance. As long as an employee is doing their work up to company standard, consuming cannabis on the weekends should not make that much of a difference. But then again, what if in employee’s job involves using heavy equipment, machinery, etc.?

There is also the issue of violating federal law. The trucking industry is a perfect example. Interstate trucking is regulated by Washington, not the states. Therefore, trucking companies that send trucks across state lines are barred from hiring cannabis users. If a trucker tests positive for cannabis, their employer has no other option but to fire them.

The clash between cannabis legalization and employer rights is only going to get more press as lawsuits are brought and legislators try to find legal compromises. It is one of the unintended consequences of legalizing cannabis. It is also an expected part of the growth process. Eventually, things will settle down.


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