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Cannabis and the Workplace Three key responsibilities for employers updating workplace policies for cannabis

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.

Six months ago, Canada became the first G7 nation to legalize recreational cannabis at the federal level. This has raised a number of challenges for employers. Add to that the complexities around managing medical cannabis, which has been legal for nearly 20 years, and organizations have their work cut out for them.

Awareness

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As of late 2018, over 340,000 Canadians had authorization from a physician to use medical cannabis. This number will likely continue to grow as research into cannabis as a treatment for common medical conditions continues. In addition, two major insurers, Sun Life Financial and Manulife, have introduced programs to cover cannabis through employee benefits plans – which shows that cannabis as a medicine is becoming more normalized in Canada.

The medical cannabis market in Canada is expanding, and the recreational market is expected to follow. According to recent data from Statistics Canada, 15 per cent of Canadians report currently using recreational cannabis and an additional 19 per cent think they will use cannabis in the next three months.

With millions of Canadians reporting cannabis use, employers have to manage the repercussions of use as it relates to the workplace. This continues to be a challenge for many employers. In August 2018, prior to legalization, a Mercer study found that only one-third of employers felt ready for legal recreational cannabis. The study also found that only one in four Canadians felt their employer was ready for legal recreational cannabis. Even though legalization happened six months ago, some employers still don’t have a plan to manage cannabis in the workplace,

Accountability

Although both employees and employers have responsibilities when it comes to cannabis in the workplace, employers have considerably more. They must balance their obligation to maintain a safe workplace with their duty to accommodate medical cannabis patients and those with substance abuse issues.

Some of the key responsibilities for employers include:

1) Developing a balanced and effective drug and alcohol policy that clarifies employee and employer obligations and expectations for both medical and recreational cannabis.

2) Developing a plan for accommodating medical cannabis for safety-sensitive employees, such as pilots and truck drivers, as well as non-safety-sensitive employees.

3) Educating themselves on applicable legislation related to cannabis.

Employees are responsible for complying with health and safety regulations, as well as workplace policies to avoid putting themselves and their peers at risk.

Action

Managing cannabis in the workplace requires extensive research, planning and careful consideration. As a starting point, employers should update their drug and alcohol policies to address medical and recreational cannabis.

When designing or updating drug and alcohol policies, it is best to use a model that categorizes impairment-causing substances rather than developing a policy specific to cannabis. Substances that cause impairment can typically be placed into one of the following four categories:

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1) Legal recreational substances that cause impairment (such as recreational cannabis or alcohol).

2) Illegal recreational substances that cause impairment (such as cocaine).

3) Medication that causes impairment, used legally (such as medically authorized cannabis or opioids).

4) Medication that causes impairment, used illegally (such as opioids used without medical authorization).

Using a substance categorization model as the foundation of a workplace drug and alcohol policy allows employers to develop protocols and strategies for each category rather than the individual substances. This is a more sustainable approach and when managing substance use in the workplace. Internal training and the effective communication of policies are just as important as the development of a policy itself.

Employers are also advised to develop strategies and protocols for accommodating medical cannabis and supporting employees who develop cannabis addiction, which occurs in approximately 9 per cent of cannabis users, according to figures from Health Canada.

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It is also important for employers to remain current on industry trends and legislative changes so they can update policies and practices when required. Ongoing research is crucial to help employers anticipate issues around cannabis in the workplace.

Employers who emphasize employee safety, reasonableness and transparency in their cannabis management strategy can effectively navigate this transition period. Although challenging, cannabis legalization is ultimately an opportunity for employers to manage this complex issue in a way that demonstrates their corporate values to employees.

Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada.

Jason Fleming is a certified human resources executive.

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