New York legalizes “recreational use” cannabis: implications for employers

On March 31, 2021, Governor Cuomo signed into law the Cannabis/Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, providing a framework for the state-sanctioned sale and recreational use of cannabis. The law became effective immediately, so New York employers should be aware that it offers significant employment protections to cannabis users.

Because the system for legal purchase has not yet been set up – and won’t be until 2022 – New Yorkers cannot currently purchase cannabis. However, the law does authorize the immediate use of cannabis, as well as its possession (up to 3 ounces, or 24 grams concentrated).

The law adds cannabis to New York’s existing lawful off-duty conduct law but carves out a few exceptions. As a refresher, the lawful off-duty conduct law prohibits discrimination against an applicant or employee for engaging in activities or consuming products that are legal, as long as they do so off duty and off the employer’s premises. As a result, employers can’t refuse to hire an applicant or discipline or terminate an employee because they use cannabis outside of work unless one of the following exceptions applies:

  • The employee is impaired by cannabis during work (see below);
  • The employer would violate a federal law or lose a federal contract or federal funding; or
  • The employer’s action is required by federal or state law or mandate

To be considered impaired by cannabis during work, an employee has to show “specific articulable symptoms” that either negatively affect their work performance or interfere with the employer’s ability to provide a safe workplace. This means that minor physical symptoms (such as bloodshot eyes) are likely not grounds for adverse action if the employee’s job is not safety sensitive.

Note that while medical cannabis patients were already protected by state disability discrimination law, these more expansive protections apply to them as well.

Since marijuana is only legal in New York for those 21 and older, employees who are under 21 do not have these employment protections.

Employer steps

Employers should review their drug policies and testing procedures and modify them as needed to ensure compliance with the new law. Employers should no longer test applicants for THC (the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) unless they are required to do so under a different law, a federal contract, or a federal grant. Likewise, if an employer becomes aware of an applicant or employee’s off-duty use, they must refrain from taking action unless one of the exceptions applies.

Disclaimer: The information contained herein is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be relied on as such. Employers should closely monitor the rules and regulations specific to their jurisdiction(s) and should seek advice from counsel relative to their rights and responsibilities.

SOURCE: HR Support Center

By Dakota Hebert
Chief Marketing Officer, Checkwriters
Dakota joined Checkwriters in 2013, where he worked in the Sales and Marketing departments and currently serves as Chief Marketing Officer. He is responsible for the company’s national brand and marketing, corporate communications, and hosts the Checkwriters Podcast. Previously, he worked in communications in the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. He lives with his wife and five children in Massachusetts.

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