Cannabis and the workplace: a human-resources perspective

Across all sectors, senior leadership and Human Resources departments find themselves reflecting upon some challenging questions

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When cannabis was legalized in Canada on October 17, 2018, medicinal and recreational users applauded the very progressive move. (Canada was the second country, after Uruguay, to legalize marijuana for recreational consumption.) To celebrate the decision, many individuals could now comfortably sit back and simply decide which strain to roll up. Meanwhile, professional organizations found themselves rolling up their sleeves to work on creating or updating existing drug and alcohol policies. Unfortunately, however, many have yet to seriously consider them.

Across all sectors, senior leadership and human-resources departments found themselves reflecting upon the following questions:

  • “Do we now need to make any changes to our drug and alcohol policies?”
  • “How prescriptive do we need to be with our policies?”  
  • “Do we need a policy at all?”

With cannabis legalization, human-resources departments walk a familiar tightrope: one that balances a worker’s rights and needs with an employer’s responsibility to provide a safe workplace. For example, does the employee operate heavy machinery or pilot jets? If so, it is reasonable to suggest that trying to do either of these jobs within minutes of smoking a joint would be unwise, unsafe, and a huge liability. What if they had consumed cannabis-laden edibles 24 or even 48 hours earlier? How many edibles? Is there a collective agreement in place for the employee in this situation? Is the worker actually impaired? How can I tell? Clearly, this situation is both fraught and complicated.  

On the subject of flying, Manitoba-based airline Calm Air wasted no time in announcing, on October 24, 2018, that they would prohibit all “safety-sensitive positions” from using cannabis within 45 days of flying. At the time, they said this was consistent with practices embraced by WestJet and Air Canada, which preferred not to take any chances with pilots and related positions. Sound advice, indeed. 

Let us consider a typical office where the most perilous task staff would normally do is discuss Lannister v. Stark around the watercooler. Even though the responsibilities here are very different from those of a pilot, there are still several considerations, including effects on work performance, accommodation of addiction and medical-use cases, how to handle discipline, and more. Perhaps they need a policy after all.

Ottawa amended impaired-driving laws to coincide with legalization; now employers who require staff to drive company vehicles had something to work with. Overall, though, since it has been left largely up to organizations to decide for themselves how to proceed, the approaches vary wildly: an engineering consultation firm with no history of issues continues to have no official drug and alcohol policy at all, while a national telecommunications provider now has a 10-page policy, including an appendix of blood- and urine-concentration limits.

As always, management preferences may play a significant role, and the social stigma around cannabis can still influence organizations and their policies, based on their perception of the issue. An ultra-conservative organization, for example, may be afraid to even mention drugs or alcohol to their employees for fear of leading them astray, whereas the right policy for another would be to integrate cannabis derivatives into their wellness program and switch to hemp paper for their office stationery.

Postsecondary education is often considered a bastion of progressive thinking. What steps are they embracing? The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology has contented itself with a simple “Thou shalt not use cannabis on campus,” consistent with municipal bylaws. Yet SAIT has no alcohol policy, despite having a pub on campus. An HR director I spoke with there sensibly theorized that “if an organization has determined they do not currently need an alcohol policy, then there is no need for a specific cannabis policy, either.”

Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby Mountain campus. Maxvis/iStock/Getty Images Plus

One province to the west, Simon Fraser University has only athletic-program-specific policies concerning drug use for athletes outlined on their website. In contrast, the British Columbia Institute of Technology has posted a five-page student and employee policy for cannabis alone. Similarly, the University of British Columbia has myriad pages of policy available on their public site, including a useful section detailing their “Four A’s” approach: “Assess, Ask, Act, After” for helping supervisors navigate “substance use” on campus or during school-sponsored events. Similarly, from a student-resource perspective, a “Health” tab provides information and support for alcohol, cannabis, illegal drugs, and more.

Speaking of health resources, drug and alcohol policies and disability management often overlap. If an employee has disclosed a substance addiction, an internal health-services department and possibly labour relations, as well as a third party like Blue Cross or Sun Life, are now involved.

Measuring or determining impairment is no longer just for police road checks, and WorkSafe BC was ready by July 2018 to help employers determine how to proceed if an employee is suspected of being impaired on the job. A new online resource was launched whose focus “is not so much about enforcement or testing, rather on the issue of assessing functional impairment”, according to their statement at the time. Functional impairment remains the most practical element for a supervisor to consider in the moment, but lack of clarity around quantifying impairment via saliva or blood testing remains a controversial conversation for employers, law-enforcement, and the country in general.

Employers have many factors to consider when responding to new legislation. As the cannabis industry and cannabis-related issues continue to evolve, we can be certain organizations will continue to amend existing policies and implement new ones to respond to these changes.

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