Cannabis in the Workplace: What Does it Actually Mean to be Impaired?

For me, cannabis reduces the intrusive thoughts from my obsessive-compulsive disorder. This frees up my cognitive space so I can better focus, communicate and work. So when am I impaired: when I’m on my medication or when I’m off it?

By Ian Carey

2019-07-17

Cannabis legalization is upon us but it’s hard to feel good about it when we are forcing medical marijuana patients like Ellaine Farrell to take opioids instead of cannabis to deal with her pain.

No Cannabis in the WorkPlace for TTC Workers

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) subway operator has recently been forced to switch back to opioids from the CBD oil she has been using to treat her pain from two herniated disks in her lower back. Otherwise, she was told by her bosses, she would no longer be able to work for the TTC as cannabis in the workplace is not allowed.

Toronto’s transit provider has had a controversial drug-testing program in place since 2011, the result of a fatal collision involving a TTC bus driver who was later charged with negligence and cannabis possession.

A court challenge brought by the Amalgamated Transit Union representing TTC workers argued that the random testing is an invasion of TTC workers’ privacy. But that was rejected by the courts, which ruled that the safety of the public outweighs the privacy of workers.

Under the TTC program, drivers and others in safety-sensitive positions with the TTC who use marijuana as medicine are required to notify the TTC. This affected Farrell in a big way after a medical review ordered last year found her to have three times the limit of cannabis allowed in her system under the TTC’s policy.

Opioids Allowed?

Opioids can also cause impairment, however, which is why Farrell has been instructed not to take her medication until at least eight hours before her shift. So, why couldn’t she just wait eight hours after consuming cannabis to work? Well, they tried that, but those pesky drug tests kept coming back with higher THC numbers than allowed under TTC policy. So Farrell was forced to choose between CBD and her job.

The TTC says its test is only able to tell if cannabis has been consumed recently. But the science is shaky on that score, to say the least. Medicinal or regular users of cannabis may show evidence of likely impairment hours or days after use.

cannabis in the workplace ttc bus driver

Be it at work or in public spaces, policies surrounding cannabis use are becoming stricter with legalization, especially for medpot patients, not the other way around.

“That’s the irony in some ways,” says lawyer Carmy Sa’d. “Medical patients will be under more scrutiny and worse off because now there are specific policies targeting them, whereas previously they may have been just flying under the radar.”

With legalization comes some tricky questions about cannabis in the workplace.

“You shouldn’t have to over-share with your employer,” Sa’d continues. “They are entitled to know some things but not everything. How much are they entitled to know is a very fact-specific question.”

Forklift drivers, oil-rig workers, line workers in a factory and any other job where a wrong move could injure someone usually requires employees to be drug-tested. This happens when first applying and often continues throughout the duration of employment.

Unreliable Drug Tests

While most places of employment will state they don’t mind if employees use cannabis outside of work, the random drug tests often used to determine if cannabis has been consumed recently are notoriously unreliable. The tests are based on the faulty notion that THC leaves the body in a time-determined manner similar to alcohol. The result has been people being fired or denied employment.

I was unable to find another transit commission outside Toronto that randomly drug-test their drivers. Which is not to say they don’t exist, but those that did get back to me stated that no employee is permitted to be impaired by drugs, alcohol or any other substance while on the job.

TPS Regulations?

Police officers are also in a safety-sensitive position. But neither the Toronto Police Service (TPS) nor the RCMP have a random drug-testing program in place for officers.

The TPS says it makes accommodations for officers who may be prescribed psychoactive medication, like a change of role within the organization, for example. The same policy applies within the RCMP.

But neither makes a distinction between marijuana or other possibly impairing substances. The issue isn’t so much around what drug is being used as it is around the person being impaired.

I asked TPS why individual substances were not listed on their policy and their answer was to say if they were, it could imply any substance not mentioned is fair game. By not listing specific substances it doesn’t matter if it’s cannabis or cough syrup causing the impairment – the issue is the decreased ability to do one’s job, not the substance.

Cannabis Impairment?

So the real question then becomes, what does it actually mean to be impaired? And why does it mean the same thing to medical marijuana users as it does to others?

I have a fun little condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD has a way of tricking very rational people into believing very irrational thoughts are real.

For me, cannabis reduces the intrusive thoughts. This frees up my cognitive space so I can better focus, communicate and work; which is the main reason I support cannabis in the workplace. So when am I impaired: when I’m on my medication or when I’m off it?

This is not to say I should be able to drive a car or work safety-sensitive positions after consuming cannabis. At the very least, however, it would be great if we could have a conversation about cannabis in the workplace without having to deal with policies based on out-of-date science and stigma-related beliefs.

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