The legalization of cannabis is slated to take effect in Canada
this summer — a development that many in America consider
That assessment is not surprising given that, in much of the United
States, employers can declare themselves “drug-free,” require that all
employees undergo drug testing, and fire anyone who fails the test.
The legalization of marijuana in the U.S., however, is handled on a
state-by-state basis and there is movement in some jurisdictions to
adopt a more disability-minded approach. These changes are partly
prompted by recent court decisions in three different states with
legalized cannabis that have applied a “disability” lens to medicinal
cannabis questions. Employers south of the border will be looking to
Canada to see how they prepare for the possibility of cannabis in the
workplace, whether for medical or recreational use.
Particular concerns about safety, accommodation and performance can
be addressed in clear HR policies. Here are some points to keep in mind:
Open the lines of workplace communication
•Legalizing cannabis represents a cultural shift — one not everyone
agrees with. If an employer starts the conversation, others will speak
•Recognize that when something that was illegal becomes legal (such
as alcohol after Prohibition), there may be a rush to exercise new
freedoms. It’s imperative to ensure employees understand what is and
isn’t permitted in the workplace.
•Acknowledge that just because something is legal, it doesn’t mean it
is without risk (such as alcohol or cigarettes), so policies are
•Discuss new policies and inform employees about the new policies —
not just what they say, but why and how they will be enforced.
•Acknowledge and address concerns employees and managers may have,
such as second-hand smoke, safety, and substance abuse by co-workers.
Appoint an in-house HR lead to deal with cannabis in the workplace
•Provide a single contact to handle all questions and develop expertise on the subject.
•One point of contact ensures consistency of application of new policies and equity.
•The single source can track issues to determine whether policies need clarification.
Related Article Place Holder
Align policies with disability management
•Let employees know how managing cannabis in the workplace is similar
to, or different from, policies regarding alcohol and other
•Recognize that testing is not effective for cannabis intoxication as
tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can be present in the bloodstream for a long
period of time without necessarily causing impairment, unlike alcohol.
•Explain why any alcohol policies are different from those for
cannabis: Alcohol is not medicinal, but cannabis can be the best
treatment for some conditions.
•Ensure that employees understand that even if they present a note
from a doctor prescribing marijuana for medical reasons, the employer
may decide to get a second opinion from an occupational health physician
or a cannabis specialist to see if another medication or dosage would
work just as well.
This situation is more likely to arise if the employee has a
safety-sensitive job or there have been substance abuse issues before.
•Address employee concerns about confidentiality. Disclosing
medicinal use of cannabis also means the employee will have to share
reasons for use. Discuss how privacy can be protected even if treatment is required at work.
Implement manager training
•If there is no effective test for cannabis impairment, managers will
need to rely on their own observations to raise concerns about
impairment or abuse.
•Outline the process for addressing concerns if managers notice a
decrease in an employee’s productivity or change in work habits, and how
managers should raise and address issues with employees.
As attitudes towards cannabis use start to change in North America,
more employers will be looking to Canada as an early legalizer, for
guidance on workplace policies.
The message should be that effective workplace policies require close
attention to not only what to cover, but how to implement change.
Both at Morneau Shepell, Jennifer Fodden is senior manager of the
workplace support program in Toronto and Pamela Powell is director of
U.S. drug testing in San Diego.