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Six months later, is cannabis still a workplace concern?

Issues remain, but much of pre-legalization hype was overblown: Experts
By Marcel Vander Wier
| Canadian HR Reporter
Cannabis
Employers that still do not address cannabis usage in policies and communications may be opening themselves up to risk, says an expert. sruilk/Shutterstock

The legalization of recreational cannabis was a hot topic for Canadian employers prior to Oct. 17, 2018.

Six months later, it appears much of that hype was overblown — just as it was with Y2K, according to Jason Fleming, strategic adviser at Cannabis at Work in Toronto.

“A lot of time and attention and paranoia and fear existed right up until the clock turned midnight, and then afterwards, a lot of people realized that there was an overestimation of the negative impacts of this issue,” he said. “Some employers got a bit carried away.”

Employers’ approach to cannabis has varied widely across Canada — largely dependent on organizational size, according to Fleming.

“I'm still seeing a number of organizations that have not touched this issue at all, across the country, that are primarily smaller and mid-sized organizations.”

For legal experts, it’s a “little bit of I told you so,” said Ryan Andersen, partner at Mathews, Dinsdale and Clark, an HR law firm in Vancouver.

“Some of the calming advice I would give to employers is that this actually isn’t that new,” he said. “It’s already possibly in your workplace because it’s not that difficult to get a legal prescription to use marijuana.” (Medical cannabis was legalized in 2000.)

Lingering issues

Still, continuing issues include appropriate drug testing, providing cannabis as a benefit, and accommodating medical cannabis, according to a survey of 163 employers by the Conference Board of Canada.

“This is something that employers are really still grappling with, unsure what the total outcomes will be,” said Monica Haberl, senior research associate at the Conference Board in Ottawa.

“Concern that employers are feeling right now is more of the long-term implications and having to think about the future of how all of these issues will play out.”

Spikes in workplace impairment and usage of medical cannabis won’t be immediate, but will increase gradually, she said.

Sixty-eight per cent of employers have updated alcohol and drug policies as well as fit-for-duty protocols, and believe a safety-conscious culture will mitigate potential risks, according to the survey.

Legislation remains of upmost concern for employers as many remain unsure of how their testing procedures would stand up if challenged legally, said Haberl.

“As of right now, workplace practices and drug testing are essentially set by legal precedent.”

The proper assessment and management of impairment from a safety perspective continues to dominate discussions among employers, said Fleming.

And the legalization of recreational cannabis is a great opportunity to broaden the issues of impairment and substance abuse from a workplace perspective, he said.

“Impairment can come in many forms — sleep deprivation, over-the-counter cough medicine, stress,” said Fleming, adding the future of drug testing lies in the technological analysis of cognitive abilities, rather than invasive testing of bodily fluid.

Educating staff

When it comes to educating workers, one-third of organizations promote material on cannabis usage, with the rest relying on employee assistance programming or online resources to do the job, according to the survey.

“I would like to see that number grow,” said Haberl. “There's obviously a distinction between an organization that's highly safety sensitive, versus a smaller organization that's mostly desk jobs. The risks and potential consequences there are considerably different.”

Yet cannabis is a topic that should be added to workplace education packages, regardless of safety sensitivity, she said.

Employees who have never tried cannabis need to realize the impacts of the drug vary in terms of how it is ingested and by whom, said Haberl.

“The risk with cannabis is that it is processed very differently than alcohol; it's processed differently by different people and not necessarily in a predictable way.”

“Even the basic facts are unknown to some potential new users,” she said. “That then does potentially pose a risk to workplaces where employees just are not well enough informed. They're potentially posing risks to themselves, their peers, their employment.”

Managerial training on impairment identification and updated policy is also advisable, said Haberl.

“Managers are the first point of contact generally when an employee is concerned with substance abuse or if they want accommodations, or are looking for benefits coverage. So, there are really some potential opportunities for growth in education.”

While education is always a good idea, it should be conducted on a case-by-case basis when it comes to cannabis, said Anderson.

“Time is a precious resource, so I don't think that would be necessary in all workplaces,” he said.

“If you're in an industry or in a culture where you think that usage is common and the understanding of its effects on safety and the workplace is not well understood, then absolutely, at-work education is a very good idea.”

Many employers chose to wait for public education improvements that never came, said Fleming.

“One of the gaps in our national legalization movement was a failure to proactively invest in public education. That created challenges for employers and many of them are now trying to supplement what they were expecting what was going to be coming from our federal government.”

Those employers that do not address cannabis usage in policies and communications may be opening themselves up to risk, he said.

“It's really important for employers to establish expectations in relation to substance use, either in the workplace at work events, or as it relates to someone's ability to do their job.”

Now is a good time to update policies and communicate changes to staff, said Anderson.

“The amendments necessary to a standard drug and alcohol policy to address the legalization of marijuana are easy,” he said. “It’s really a matter of communicating with employees that although this substance has now become legal for recreational use, all of the same safety and free-from-impairment-at-work rules still apply.”

“It’s probably pretty healthy for employers to revisit their policies and their communication with employees.”

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