How Marijuana Use Impacts Work Injuries

Posted on February 06, 2020

Marijuana use may impact employee safety and workers’ compensation claims for injuries on the job.

Marijuana in the Workplace

In Chicago, workers who use marijuana in the workplace may not be covered for on-the-job injuries. Every state has its own laws that govern marijuana use by employees and the impact of employee safety and workers’ compensation claims related to workplace marijuana use.

Illinois Marijuana Laws

In 2019, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill that legalized the sale and recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 years old and older. On January 1, 2020, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize marijuana. Although marijuana use is now fully legal in Illinois, that does not mean it is permitted in the workplace. State laws do not require employers to accommodate on-duty marijuana use and/or possession or to tolerate employee impairment caused by the use of marijuana. Illinois has clear employee regulations addressing workplace medical marijuana laws, workplace safety standards, and work injuries. No state protects the on-duty use of recreational marijuana by employees.

An amendment signed into law by Governor Pritzker clarifies employer rights under the Cannabis Act. It reduces employer liability by clearly stating that the Act does not create a cause of action against employers who enforce reasonable workplace drug policies such as testing applicants or employees for drugs prior to employment or randomly. When test results are positive, employers have the right to withdraw an applicant’s job offer, as well as discipline or terminate an employee, as long as there is an established and reasonable workplace drug policy in place.

Federal Marijuana Laws

Under federal law, no on-duty use of medical marijuana is protected and users are not protected against adverse employment actions or denied workers compensation claims by insurance companies. As a Schedule I drug under federal law, courts offer no protections for medical marijuana or recreational marijuana use either on-duty or off-duty. Marijuana is an illegal drug under federal law.

Because of strict federal drug regulations, many employers require drug testing prior to hiring and during employment. The U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires all employers to test commercial vehicle operators for drugs, including marijuana, prior to and during employment. They rigidly enforce a zero-tolerance policy for positive marijuana testing. Under the Drug-free Workplace Act of 1988, all federal contractors who receive payments exceeding $100,000, as well as all organizations that receive federal grants are required to establish and maintain a drug-free workplace policy at all times.

Impact on Workers Compensation Benefits

Since marijuana is deemed an intoxicating substance, Illinois workers who use marijuana while on the job may forfeit their workers’ compensation benefits for injuries. Since a worker’s level of impairment and his/her impact on workplace safety is difficult to determine, many Illinois employers and insurance companies deny work-related claims for employees who use marijuana on the job.

Marijuana intoxication is caused by THC found in the drug. Common experiences among users include feelings of relaxation or euphoria, heightened sensory perceptions, and altered perceptions of time. Research studies confirm that marijuana intoxication causes:

  • Impaired coordination
  • Impaired cognitive skills
  • Memory loss
  • Attention deficits
  • Physical and mental dysfunction
  • Slowed reaction times

Although marijuana can be consumed by smoking, oral tablets, infused oils, food products, and topical lotions, smoking causes the most immediate intoxication reaction, with impairment usually lasting from 2 to 4 hours. During a normal 8-hour workday, the effects of marijuana may wear off but the drug will still show up on drug tests.

Because of possible workplace dangers and safety violations, many employers and insurance companies have strict policies about medical or recreational on-duty marijuana use. Several studies that examined marijuana use in the workplace concluded that workers are at increased risks for accidents and injuries. In Illinois, where marijuana is fully legal, there are many occupational injuries seen by Chicago workers compensation attorneys

Legal marijuana raises significant issues for self-insured Illinois employers and workers comp insurers. Major questions address specific concerns including:

  • Positive marijuana test results for an employee
  • Level of employee intoxication impairment
  • Linking workplace injuries to marijuana use
  • Reimbursement of medical marijuana expenses
  • Workers comp benefits for medical bills and lost wages
  • The safety of other workers in the workplace

Illinois workers’ compensation laws restrict benefits for employees who are intoxicated at the time of injury. Since marijuana is proven to be an intoxicant, benefits may be denied based on these laws. Benefits may also be denied if an employee refuses to take a drug test. With the recent legalization of marijuana in Illinois, Chicago workers’ compensation attorneys and insurance companies are still addressing many questions that remain unanswered about marijuana use in the workplace and related worker injuries. When injury claims are denied, work injury lawyers may dispute the validity of drug test results to help claimants obtain benefits.