DIGGING DEEPER: Light Up: Let Go

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While the medical marijuana experiment has been underway in Illinois for three years, using that medicine could cost you your job.

A 25News Digging Deeper probe finds issues with the predominant screening method and state law, which may not protect you, the employee.

Additionally, governor-elect J.B. Pritzker has said he wants to legalize recreational use of cannabis.

As of August, marijuana is now a legitimate alternative to opioids in the state.

Right now just over 46,000 have the Medical Cannabis Registered Qualifying Patient card, just a fraction of the state’s population.

At 38, a single mother tells 25News she got tired of pain & pain pills. Asking to be known as “Shelli”, she describes battles with a traumatic brain injury, bone disease and a colostomy bag. In April she took her doctor’s written certification, spent $250 dollars and got the state’s red-framed cannabis card, good for three years. Now she’s out of work and says she’s being denied unemployment compensation.

“‘Cause it broke their zero tolerance policy,” Shelli said. “It’s not right. And I’m not going back to pills to keep a job.”

Paperwork shows her manufacturing job in McDonough County let her go, after 12 years and three promotions over the summer. Shelli says a co-worker thought she was taking drugs on the job.

“I’m a worker. I work my butt off, even though I could sit at home and collect disability. But you can’t, you don’t teach kids anything doing that. I’m made to feel like a criminal almost. It sucks,” Shelli said, adding she was headed to two job interviews the next day and feared those prospective employers may pass her up if they knew of her positive drug test.

State figures show 20,584 people applied last year for a medical marijuana patient card, 392 of those were from Peoria.

The numbers also reveal that a large percentage of the applicant pool is well into middle age.

The age 51-60 group made up 22 percent of applicants last year, while the 61-70 age group accounted for another 20 percent of applicants.

Combined that’s 42 percent of the total, according to the Illinois Annual Medical Cannabis Registry Program Report July 1, 2017 – June 30, 2018.

Medical cannabis from the dispensary and smoking it 2-3 times a day, along with maybe 10 hits from the vape pen, all help Molly Keener cope with fibromyalgia.

‘It’s worth it to be able to live a life instead of just existing,” Keener said.

But fear of a positive drug test is the reason she hasn’t applied for a job in four years.

“If I want to use my medicine, and feel better, have a better quality of life, I know those things are off the table, in a lot of areas,” Keener said. “Our identity as who we are is out job. That’s the first thing somebody’s going to ask you. ‘What do you do?’ And, uh, it’s hard to answer that sometimes..when you’re not really doing anything but you want to. But you’re prevented because of your illness.”

At the same dispensary, Trinity Compassionate Care Center, 3125 N. University Street, another patient, a mother of three kids  has 3.5 grams of “flower” or “bud” – used to roll cigarettes or even cook with in edible products. She paid $35.00 and expects that medicine to last her 3-4 days. Sarah says her communications employer knows she uses it for PTSD. The working, registered nurse at Trinity claims she was fired from her last job, in March of 2017, as she fought cancer for a third time with marijuana.

“It was a sad situation because I’d worked for them so seven years. Seven years! You’re going to let me go? I’ve been nothing but good to all your patients,” Anita Burnett said. “Again, I could have medicated three weeks ago and it’s still going to show up. So, in that sense it’s not fair. We’ve got to work out a testing system.”

A basic urine screen is the most common drug test used now in Illinois, both for pre-employment and on the job tests. It will search for the presence of THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. But the test will come up positive, even if the THC has been in your system for weeks. Further, your employer won’t know if you were actually impaired or affected when you took the test.

OSF Healthcare certainly wants a safe workplace. More than 20,000 people are working for OSF in Illinois with 12 hospitals and more than a 100 work sites. They also hire 3,000 people a year. None with a positive drug screen for cannabis.

“If you test positive at all that we are not, we are not able to hire you at this time,” said Shelley Nguyen, Vice President of workforce management and employee relations.

Nguyen says they can spot test anyone when their behavior at work is suspicious, demonstrating a significant change. If you refuse, it’s considered a positive test. You’re suspended.

‘For us, it’s about caring for other’s lives. And when we can’t prove whether somebody’s impaired or not, then we’re going to go towards the area of saying we’re going to be conservative here and say we’re just not going to allow this at this time,” Nguyen said, pointing to the testing system that she also sees as inadequate. Nguyen is hoping that is something lawmakers can address and better clarify.

“Until we get that kind of guidance, we’re kind of at the point of saying we can’t allow it,” Nguyen said.

Right now, Illinois has only 55 medical marijuana dispensaries but they’ve rung up more than $221 million in sales since it all began three years ago.

‘It’s one of those topics that people get giggly about um, but it’s real,” said Jeff Griffin, President of the Peoria area Chamber of Commerce. “Employers want healthy, happy employees.”

He just attended a national chamber conference in Washington D.C. where marijuana use was a discussion topic.

Griffin says, so far, local businesses are not coming to him for advice on the marijuana issue.

“And how that works with the medicinal use of the marijuana in job assignments, we haven’t had a big uproar. So, my..I’m thinking the marketplace is working it out,” Griffin said. “Really, I don’t want to dismiss it as a topic but people just need to understand the rules don’t change for a safe work environment.”

Vague as it is for employees and businesses, it’s also unclear in state law.

The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act reads, in part:

“This Act does not permit any person…..Undertaking any task under the influence of cannabis, when doing so would constitute negligence, professional malpractice, or professional misconduct;
“Nothing in this Act shall prevent a private business from restricting or prohibiting the medical use of cannabis on its property.

But in often cited Section 40, it also reads”

“No school, employer, or landlord may refuse to enroll or lease to, or otherwise penalize, a person solely for his or her status as a registered qualifying patient……unless failing to do so would put the school, employer, or landlord in violation of federal law or…..
cause it to lose a monetary or licensing-related benefit under federal law…”

“We’re still waiting on good cases in Illinois to rely on,” said attorney Jeff Hall. “And what people say is, ‘Oh, with cannabis, you can’t tell as much if they’re impaired.’ And I say, exactly because they’re not impaired.”

A former state prosecutor, now in private practice, Hall says the calls from confused and often newly unemployed card holders are on the rise this fall.

“Do I tell my employer that I have a medical cannabis card? And right now we say absolutely not! There is a law that protects you. But, do you have the time and energy to fight that?” Hall said.

But, he also calls the effort to get employers to see the difference between the presence of marijuana and actual impairment is an ongoing challenge.

“It’s very difficult, in this day age to get a science-based law where everyone agrees. And that’s frustrating,” Hall said. “The employer cannot fire (you) solely based on medical cannabis and its prescription to one of their employees unless it’s going to prevent them a federal benefit. But it hasn’t stopped employers so far. And I think, what they’re doing is, they’re saying, ‘We’re going to do it until someone tells us not to’. And what I say is, we’ve got someone telling you not to. It’s the statute!”

In Delavan, it’s a hands on business producing edible products that look like tootsie rolls. In the past year, they’ve doubled their staff at the Revolution Enterprises cultivation center in Delavan, IL. The search is on for more educated, highly motivated people.

“They have chemistry degrees. I mean, we have a $1.5 million dollar lab here,” said Eric Diekhoff, V.P. of operations.

They add no food coloring and use specialized equipment to remove the ethanol from the product. Theirs is one of only 21 cultivation centers or grow houses in the state. And they believe recreational cannabis could be established in Illinois this summer.

“Regardless of who was going to be governor we were going to be expanding and growing, no matter what. Yes, we’re looking forward to it,” Diekhoff said.

Just one of five grow rooms at the Delavan facility has 478 plants inside. Diekhoff says, in less than two weeks, they will double their capacity. Beyond that, they’re using a massive composter to take marijuana waste and make their own soil, Which they can use on the 70 acres they just bought.

“Patients have been very happy with the products that they have, getting away from some of the pharmaceuticals that they’re having issues with. It’s here to stay,” Diekhoff said.

As we look ahead to what recreational marijuana could mean for Illinois, we looked to Colorado for guidance, where legal recreational cannabis sales started on New Year’s Day 2014.

They saw $1 billion dollars worth of marijuana products sold last year, according to the Denver Post, hauling in $200 million in sales tax revenue.

But Colorado only has 5.6 million people while Illinois has 12.8 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

If you assume similar sales and a similar 15-percent tax rate, it’s not hard to imagine a potential tax benefit of $360 million dollars a year, if Illinois chooses to legalize recreational cannabis.

As we found though, that could greatly increase the number of work sites facing the marijuana dilemma: if you use it, you could be let go.

tlopez

tlopez

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