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The Conference Board of Canada and The Globe and Mail are partnering to explore the relationship between career success and cannabis use. Employers and employees (both recreational and medical cannabis users, as well as non-cannabis users) are invited to participate in this study. (Employees interested in taking the survey can click on this link.; Employers interested in taking the survey can click on this link.) The data from these surveys will be aggregated and used to conduct analysis and create a report that will be presented Oct. 15, 2019 at a conference at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto.

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Canadian society has come a long way since cannabis prohibition began in the 1920s – when the plant was listed under the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill. Some 80 years later, Health Canada allowed access to cannabis for medical purposes following an Ontario Court of Appeal decision.

While cannabis has been used by people for thousands of years, we still know relatively little about how it works as a medicine. Medical cannabis use in Canada increased from 23,930 registered users in 2015 to over 330,000 in 2018, an 14-times increase in just three years.

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The more widespread use of medical cannabis is causing challenges for some employers as they try to balance their employees’ health with maintaining a safe and productive workplace. Employers are mainly concerned about the potential risks of employees being impaired on the job due to cannabis.

Under human rights legislation, employers need to accommodate any employee with medical authorization to use cannabis, as long as it does not cause undue hardship for the workplace.

Employers with workers approved for medical cannabis accommodations should ensure these employees understand the organizations’ substance use policies – in particular, impairment and fit-for-duty policies. For their part, employees who receive medical accommodations must be sure they don’t breach these agreed-upon terms.

In spite of the growing number of people using cannabis as a medical treatment, there are still relatively few employers covering it under their benefits plans.

Awareness

Cannabis is considered an effective treatment for many medical conditions. These include Alzheimer’s, nausea from chemotherapy, epilepsy, seizures, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, anxiety and depression.

Researchers are examining different cannabis strains to see how effective they are for a variety of medical conditions. Medical cannabis, part of a class of medicines called cannabinoid-based medicines, is currently administered as oils, capsules or tablets, and by vaporizing or smoking in dried form. Premixed topical creams and edibles are not currently legal for sale in Canada, though patients may prepare cannabis these ways themselves.

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Cannabinoids are a type of compound that are part of a natural chemical communication system in our bodies. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the most common cannabinoids. While THC is known for its psychoactive effects, CBD is best understood for its potential therapeutic uses – it doesn’t have the psychoactive effect that THC does. This is a key factor, especially for those cautious about workplace impairment. Some strains of medical cannabis are high in CBD and low in THC, meaning the psychoactive effect is significantly reduced.

One challenge with medical cannabis is that there is a knowledge gap for the average person (or physician) when it comes to assessing medical conditions and symptoms and selecting the best cannabis strain and dosing strength or method.

Accountability

Even though cannabis has been approved as a medical treatment, there are still stereotypes and stigma associated with the drug. This may be a barrier for some employees who are authorized by a physician to use medical cannabis as a treatment for medical conditions.

Cannabis Standard is an online tool for people suffering from conditions that may benefit from medical cannabis, designed to help them access the most current information on its effectiveness. It allows people to take ownership and understand the treatment options available. This tool is not intended as a substitute for medical advice, only to help people work with their doctor to find the best treatment for their condition.

Action

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Employees who have consulted with their physicians and determined that medical cannabis might be helpful for their condition must decide whether they want to try the drug as a treatment. The next step is to determine whether their job is eligible for a medical cannabis accommodation to allow them to use the drug before or during work. Employees working in safety-sensitive roles may face more barriers than those in non-safety-sensitive roles.

Most organizations have updated their substance use policies to account for medical cannabis accommodations. In organizations where this has not been done, employees are advised to talk with their direct manager or human resources department to find out if their role is eligible.

In addition, employees who are eligible for an accommodation should find out if their current benefits plan covers medical cannabis. Some employers are taking proactive steps toward determining if they should cover medical cannabis in their health plans by using confidential employee health surveys to determine what percentage of employees are using medical cannabis.

Given the expected shift in mindset when it comes to medical cannabis, both employers and employees –especially those with chronic diseases that may benefit from its use – need to stay current with the growing body of research on medical cannabis.

Bill Howatt is the chief of research for workforce productivity at The Conference Board of Canada.

Helen Stevenson is the CEO and founder of Reformulary Group

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