Medical marijuana, more popular than ever, could still cost you your job in Illinois

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Ross Weidner and Jonathan Fagg WLS logo
Wednesday, October 13, 2021
Medical marijuana could still cost you your job in Illinois
The ABC7 I-Team examines drug testing at the workplace and the "cloud of confusion" over legal marijuana use.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Medical marijuana is more popular than ever in Illinois, despite the fact that recreational marijuana has been legal for more than a year. In fact, data indicates the spike in medical marijuana usage may be because of recreational marijuana, which is taxed at a much higher rate.

But it's also a resource for doctors and patients struggling with chronic conditions and looking to avoid using opiates.

"My thought process is, if you can reduce opiates, if you can start living your life more, then it's a wonderful medication," said Dr. Rahul Khare, Innovative Express Care.

Some doctors insist the increase in medical marijuana consumers reflects growing demand for effective and legitimate pain treatments; Khare said he has certified more than 13,000 Illinoisans for medical marijuana in the last five years.

In the past year there's been a 30% increase in Illinois medical marijuana cards, new state data shows.

According to the latest statewide data, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder top the list of reasons to obtain a medical marijuana card. The report also notes the state saw a jump of more than 30% in the number of new patients signing up for an Illinois cannabis card in 2021, with the largest percentage of new patients between the ages of 31 and 40.

But medical and recreational marijuana consumers face a common dilemma: potentially losing their jobs for using a legal substance.

"How do we protect employees who are using this legal substance when it stays in their system for up to 30 days?" said Rep. Bob Morgan (D-IL 58), one of the original architects of the state's medical marijuana law. "So, this is not a new topic, but certainly is much bigger now that we have a larger pool of individuals in Illinois who are legally using the substance."

Some companies continue to enforce a zero tolerance policy for all employees who test positive for marijuana on drug tests, even if they have a medical marijuana card.

"They actually hired me and then they fired me," said Cindy Andere.

The 35-year-old is a registered nurse and a registered medical marijuana patient. In August, she planned to start a new job at Silver Cross Surgery Center in New Lenox, but received a letter from them informing her she failed their drug screening, which they said is a condition of her employment.

"They treated me like I was a criminal," Andere said. "They treated me, they made me feel like I was a junkie."

Andere suffers from a Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that causes debilitating chronic pain. She is prescribed medical cannabis for the pain, and she said she only uses it when she's off the clock.

"It gives me, I think honestly, the better quality of life than a lot of pharmaceuticals. There is very little side effects for me, personally. I actually have more energy with it," she said.

Andere has filed for disability discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides no protection in Illinois because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.

"I told them on my application I was disabled, and so for them to not give me any other options, I felt that was something I really needed to bring to light," Andere said.

In an email, a spokesperson for Silver Cross Surgery center said they "decline to comment on pending legal matters."

Andere's attorney said cases like hers are increasing as the patchwork of marijuana laws and policies have not yet been challenged in state courts.

"People are beyond confused," said employment attorney David Fish. "People call us up and usually their first response is, I looked on the internet and marijuana is legal and it says in there I can't be fired for using it at work, and then we have to explain that there's this law that says something a little bit different."

"I think we need to clean it up, it's long overdue. It's impacting a lot of people," said State Rep. Bob Morgan.

Morgan has introduced legislation to challenge Illinois law so most workers or job seekers would not be punished after testing positive for low levels of marijuana, whether recreational or medical.

"This law would change the burden in the sense that the individual who fails a drug test alone should not lose their job, and should not be refused an opportunity to work someplace" he explained. "Unless you show impairment, you can't be discriminated against in the workplace."

The reach of state law can be limiting, and adding to the confusion is that employment protection for cannabis users may not apply to federal positions and safety-sensitive jobs, such as those in transportation, manufacturing and health care.

Employment experts say many companies are sticking with traditional drug screens for liability and safety reasons as well.

"We have always been a drug free, work safe environment," said Joyce Johnson, president and CEO of Anchor staffing in Chicago.

Johnson's company provides contigent employess for a variety of companies. "A lot of corporations will just say 'We don't care if it's federally legal or state legal, it's not our company policy, they have to pass a drug screen and they cannot come back positive with cannabis.' And I think that's what a lot of corporations are going under, just to make sure it's fair."

Andere said her use of medical marijuana at home does not interfere with her ability to be a good nurse at work.

"If it takes me being the example to change policies or change a law, then I'm all for it because I'm willing to stand up for what is right," she said.

With the steadily increasing numbers of certified medical marijuana cardholders in Illinois and the legalization of recreational marijuana, however, doctors and lawmakers are stressing the critical need for companies to rethink drug testing policies.