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Smoking Cannabis Legally in Illinois: What’s an Employer to Do?

On January 1, 2020, Illinois joined the growing number of states that allow the sale and use of marijuana for personal and recreational use. The law has been so popular that most of the cannabis dispensaries in Illinois sold out of their supply within the first week. 

So, what now for employers in Illinois? May they tell workers who get stoned on a break that they must leave the workplace? Can they still maintain a drug-free workplace? Can they still do drug testing? The answer to all three questions is yes; however, as explained below, there are important steps that an employer must take should it decide to discipline an employee. While there will be much to work out as Illinois navigates its new cannabis laws, employers may maintain the same standards at work that they had before the law became effective. But they need to know and follow the new law’s requirements. 

Parameters of the New Law

On January 1, 2020, the Cannabis Regulation Tax Act (CRTA), 410 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 705/10 et seq., became law, permitting personal and recreational cannabis use for all individuals 21 years of age or older. Under the CRTA, Illinois residents may possess 30 grams of cannabis flower, 500 milligrams of a THC-infused cannabis product and 5 grams of cannabis concentrate for personal use. 

The CRTA will not be interpreted to diminish workplace (includes buildings, real property and parking lots under control of the employer and used by the employee to perform job duties) safety. The act identifies and allows employers to adopt certain cannabis policies relating to use, consumption, storage and impairment to further protect employee safety, such as:

  • Employers are allowed to adopt a reasonable zero-tolerance policy for its employees or require a drug-free workplace.

  • Employers are permitted to adopt employment policies relating to drug testing, smoking, consuming, storing and using cannabis while an employee is at the workplace, performing job duties or on call.

  • Employers may prohibit an employee from using cannabis or from being under the influence of cannabis while at the workplace, performing job duties or on call.

  • Employers may undertake disciplinary measures or terminate an employee’s employment for violating a reasonable workplace drug policy. 

A Fine Line

One of the trickier aspects for Illinois employers will be making a determination of when an employee is impaired or under the influence of cannabis. The law provides that an employer can express a “good faith belief” that the employee manifests certain articulable symptoms that decrease or diminish the employee’s job performance and responsibilities. The CTRA identifies a number of symptoms an employer may consider in finding an employee is impaired or under the influence, such as “symptoms of the employee’s speech, physical dexterity, agility, coordination, demeanor, irrational or unusual behavior, or negligence or carelessness in operating equipment or machinery; disregard for the safety of employee or others, involvement in any accident that results in serious damage to equipment or other property; disruption of a production of manufacturing process; or carelessness that results in any injury to the employee or others.” 

When an employer takes any action against an employee for being under the influence of cannabis, the CTRA requires that an employee be provided a reasonable opportunity to challenge the basis of an employer’s determination. Employers should notify an employee in writing of its determination and invite the employee to state their case as to why the employer’s determination may be incorrect before it takes an adverse action against the employee. All activity in the appeal process should be documented. 

Employers’ Rights and Liability

Some good news for employers is that the CTRA does not create or imply a cause of action against an employer for the actions taken relating to an employer’s reasonable workplace drug policy. IL LEGIS 101-593 (2019), 2019 Ill. Legis. Serv. P.A. 101-593 (S.B. 1557) (WEST). Actions taken relating to an employer’s reasonable drug policy include subjecting an employee or applicant to a drug and/or alcohol test, nondiscriminatory random drug testing, disciplining employees, termination of employment or withdrawing an offer for employment because of a failed drug test. The amendments to the CTRA now expressly limit an employer’s liability for disciplining or terminating employment resulting from a failed drug test. Further, the amendments to the CTRA clarify and reinforce an employer’s ability to administer pre-employment and random drug testing policies. 

Employers must be careful, however, to not take action against an employee when the use of cannabis is after work hours. The Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act was amended, effective January 1, 2020, 820 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 55/5, to specifically prohibit employers from terminating employment because of an employee’s personal or recreational use of lawful products (including cannabis) outside of the workplace during nonworking, off-call hours. In the event an employee is disciplined or employment is terminated because of cannabis use outside of the workplace during off-duty hours, an employee may bring a discrimination cause of action under the Right to Privacy in the Workplace. 

It is anticipated that there will be tension between individuals contesting an employer’s determination that he/she was impaired or under the influence of cannabis at the workplace with the contention that any use was during off-duty hours. For instance, what if an employee used cannabis four hours before starting a shift? The employee may claim protection under the Right to Privacy in the Workplace, whereas the employer may argue the employee was nonetheless under the influence in the workplace. This tension is exacerbated by the fact that there is currently no test to determine how recently an individual has used, consumed or smoked cannabis. Further, there is no test that determines how high or low cannabis levels are in an individual. 

Illinois employers will need to understand and follow the CTRA laws and Right to Privacy in the Workplace laws. Employers should prepare specific written policies to address these new issues. 

This article was prepared with assistance from Gabriela C Herrera (Law Clerk-Chicago).

© 2022 Wilson ElserNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 21

About this Author

David M. Holmes, Wilson Elser, product liability attorney, toxic tort lawyer

David Holmes is the regional managing partner of Wilson Elser’s Chicago office. He has a diverse civil litigation practice that encompasses the defense of employment law, product liability and toxic tort, professional liability, and insurance coverage claims. 

A wide variety of corporations, both large and small, have called on David to provide an effective defense in discrimination, wrongful termination, FMLA, FLSA and other employment-related claims. He has experience in state and federal courts and before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity...