Cook Co. changes drug test policy for asst. public defender applicants

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A power struggle has been brewing in Cook County, where job offers to several attorneys from Public Defender Sharone Mitchell were rescinded after confusion over the county's drug policy.

Recreational marijuana became legal in Illinois last January. That complicated the hiring process for many, including a handful of attorneys offered jobs months ago by the Cook County Public Defender's Office. Their offers were revoked when drug tests came back positive for marijuana.

Soon after the I-Team started asking questions, Cook County told us the policy is being changed and the attorneys are being asked to reapply.

Brittany Robinson and Matt Stein applied for open attorney positions in the Cook County Public Defender's Office. Both received job offers. Both of their drug tests were positive for marijuana. Both told the I-Team they use recreationally.

"As long as there's not a substance abuse problem, if a person is going to work sober, they're meeting their duties to their clients, that should be enough," Stein said. "It's not, it's not something the county should really be investigating unless there's some sort of reasonable suspicion that this person has a problem and it's interfering with their ability to serve the residents of Cook County."

"What I do on my own time does not affect my professional responsibilities," Robinson told the I-Team.

"The positions in question were previously noted as safety-sensitive positions by the previous Public Defender. Anyone who tests positive for any controlled substance, including marijuana, in a safety-sensitive position is prohibited from being employed in that position. When the new Public Defender took office, the positions temporarily remained in a safety sensitive designation, so a drug test was required for these applicants. However, the new Public Defender has since revised the job description and these positions are no longer designated as a safety-sensitive, thus a drug test will not be required for future postings. All candidates previously disqualified for safety-sensitive positions are welcome to apply immediately for non-safety-sensitive positions within the County," said a Cook County spokesperson.

Lester Finkle, former Chief of Staff for the previous Public Defender, Amy Campanelli, says only the Cook County Bureau of Human Resources can designate a job as safety-sensitive, not the Public Defender. Finkle says Campanelli was against drug testing applicants after recreational marijuana was legalized in Illinois.

The new Public Defender, Sharone Mitchell, sent this statement to the I-Team:

"The Public Defenders Office's is disappointed that we were unable to hire these candidates who are highly qualified. Our position has never changed, their alleged consumption of cannabis, whether for medicinal or recreational purposes, should not be a factor in determining whether they should be offered a position with our firm.

Additionally, we believe employment testing for cannabis is wholly inappropriate given its legality, widespread safe use, and the fact that testing only proves that a person may have consumed at some point in the past, not that the person is currently inebriated or somehow unable to complete the duties of the position in the most effective manner possible.

The Public Defender's Office expressed this concern to the County's Bureau of Human Resources, and we were more than pleased to learn that they were receptive to our advocacy on this issue. We learned late last week that the County has agreed to revise its Drug & Alcohol Policy and the Assistant Public Defender position will no longer require a drug test. Moreover, the affected candidates will be allowed to reapply immediately.

We want to thank President Preckwinkle and the Bureau of Human Resources for their prompt attention to this matter. The County has long been a champion of equity and justice under President Preckwinkle's leadership; this was reflected in the County's prompt decision to remedy this issue.

This type of drug testing is an archaic relic of the racist War on Drugs, a war that our Public Defenders are tasked with fighting every day. We are proud to have a hand in changing this policy and practice and look forward to continuing the fight for structural policy change inside and outside the courtroom."

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"Well we're in a crazy situation. I mean the state of Illinois came out and told everybody marijuana is legal," said employment attorney David Fish.

Cook County officials say the policy was just changed because Public Defender Mitchell requested to reclassify the positions as not "safety-sensitive." A drug test is no longer required and the attorneys affected have been encouraged to reapply.

"There's this gray area of the law that doesn't really tell you what your rights are," Fish told the I-Team.

Employment attorneys say drug policies can be confusing for both employers and employees.

Two state laws on the topic appear to contradict each other.

"They passed a law that says you can't be fired for using marijuana on your own time. There's millions of dollars in tax dollars being collected," said Fish. "And then there's this ambiguous law that still is interpreted to say that employers can fire you if you fail a drug test for marijuana."

State Representative Kelly Cassidy sponsored the law to legalize recreational marijuana here and is now advocating for legislation she says will clear up confusion and protect employees' rights.

"We felt like it would be more appropriate to put in place these protections that again make clear that testing when there's a question of impairment is absolutely an appropriate decision. But that folks who aren't in public safety positions, shouldn't be subjected to this, it's a legal substance," said Rep. Cassidy. "We don't test to see how many glasses of chardonnay you have every night."

Stein and Robinson say they hope the revised policy saves future applicants from the struggle they have been going through for the past 6 months.

"We really want to work...this is what we want to do, this is why we went to law school. We want to represent people who need a voice," said Stein.

"I just don't want this to happen to anyone else," said Robinson.

Both Stein and Robinson say they are reapplying for the assistant public defender jobs.
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