The sale of medical marijuana in New York State, scheduled to begin Jan. 5, will introduce a tangle of complications for employers and workers, experts said Wednesday.
At a panel discussion in Melville sponsored by the Long Island Association, attorney Hanan Kolko said the treatment of employees authorized to take medical marijuana remains a murky legal area.
State law bars employers from penalizing workers for taking medical marijuana, he said, yet businesses can "take action against intoxication at the workplace."
Kolko, whose practice at Garden City-based Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein PC covers the emerging marijuana industry, said that blood tests can reveal exposure, but not necessarily intoxication.
"This is an issue that will get fought out in the courts," he said.
Kevin Gershowitz, who runs a scrap metal recycling business based in Medford, questioned how he could avoid legal liability if workers used medical marijuana.
"I run over 65 trucks a day on the road," he said.
Assemb. Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Health Committee in the State Assembly, said that marijuana is widely available on the black market and casual users are unlikely to negotiate the state's highly regulated medical marijuana system, which bars the sale of the drug in smokable form. Approved forms include liquids and oils administered orally or through vapors.
"Someone who wants to get stoned is not going to be doing it with medical marijuana," he said.
Gottfried said common sense would be required and likened the issue of employee medical marijuana use to other restricted drugs.
"There are millions of New Yorkers who take prescription drugs" whose instructions advise against driving or operating heavy equipment, he said.
"We're in a gray area," Kolko acknowledged. "The truth is, it's not really worked out."
Further complicating the issue is the federal government's continued classification of marijuana as an illegal drug.
Because of the drug's status, banks, which are federally regulated, are loath to open accounts with medical marijuana firms, Kolko said.
The lack of banking relationships means medical marijuana primarily will be a cash business and dispensaries will have to find a way to pay the 7 percent excise tax to the state.
"Literally, people will be bundling $100 bills and driving them to Albany," he said.
The State Legislature passed the Compassionate Care Act in June 2014, legalizing the use of medical marijuana.
New York's medical marijuana law limits access to patients with serious conditions, including multiple sclerosis, cancer, epilepsy and inflammatory bowel disease.
Bloomfield Industries, one of five companies selected to manufacture and distribute medical marijuana, has proposed to open a dispensary in a Lake Success office building. Columbia Care NY LLC's plan to open a dispensary in Riverhead has encountered opposition.
Panelist Ed Draves, a partner at Albany lobbying firm Bolton-St. Johns LLC, said the New York State law places tight controls on the marijuana, requiring a wireless tracking tag to be attached to each plant and limiting access to dispensaries.
"Only the patient or caregiver can come in," he said.New York is one of more than 20 states to approve medical marijuana.
On Thursday, Oregon's medical marijuana dispensaries will be authorized to begin selling buds to recreational users older than 21.