CHARLESTON — It will be legal to buy marijuana in Illinois next year but employers can make sure its use doesn't hurt operations or safety.
But while prohibiting the use or possession of marijuana at work is one thing, its use elsewhere and how it might affect a worker and a workplace is another.
That's according to business attorney Brian Wacker, who spoke Thursday to a group of Coles County business representatives about the new law and its implications.
"The amount of concern out there is great," he said of the recreational marijuana law that will go into effect in the state on Jan. 1.
Coles Together, the county's economic development organization, sponsored Thursday's presentation along with the Charleston, Mattoon and state chambers of commerce.
Angela Griffin, Coles Together president, said the goal was to address business owners' concerns about whether they can continue practices such as drug-free work zones while complying with the law.
Wacker, an attorney with the SmithAdmundsen regional business law firm, touched on how the "changing landscape" includes people age 21 and older being able to buy marijuana and various related materials.
He also explained that what's available today is "not your father's marijuana" and can be about 10 times as potent as what was prevalent 40 years ago.
He assured employers that they can still have zero-tolerance drug policies as long they're not discriminatory.
They can prohibit the use or possession of marijuana and employers and can also prevent employees from working while under the effects of marijuana, he said.
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That includes workers on the road or not actually at work but on call, he explained.
Still, Wacker continued, a "gray area" develops in situations similar to drinking alcohol at a business dinner, or if it's not clear when a work assignment ends.
And while Illinois lawmakers indicated that an employer is protected from lawsuit if a worker is fired or disciplined for failing a drug test, any action has to be based on a "good faith belief" of use or impairment, he also said.
"There's very little in this law to give certainty to employers," Wacker said.
He suggested developing a "reasonable suspicion checklist" to use to recognize possible impairment. An impaired worker might show changes in mood and work patterns or increased absenteeism or accidents, he said.
Legal problems can result from ambiguous policies, untrained testers, lack of documentation and other factors, Wacker also said.
He urged employers to become familiar with the new law and update policies accordingly.