Now that Canadians have an official date — Oct. 17 — when they
will be able to legally purchase and consume recreational marijuana,
employers should be preparing for the potential impact on issues such as
occupational health and safety, productivity and attendance management.
But a strong majority (85 per cent) remain concerned about the
implications for the workplace, according to a Conference Board of
Canada report released in June. Twenty-five per cent are very concerned,
27 per cent are concerned and 33 per cent are slightly concerned, found
the survey of 198 employers.
The top five concerns for employers ahead of impending legalization
include workplace safety (57 per cent) — especially in safety-sensitive
roles — impairment or intoxication at work (39 per cent), increased
usage of cannabis inside and outside work (21 per cent), testing (20 per
cent), accommodation and disclosure, and cost (both 15 per cent), said
Blazing the Trail: What the Legalization of Cannabis Means for Canadian
“Where most organizations are worried right now is sort of (if) the
social, casual person who hasn’t been participating or partaking may
start in this new realm,” said Bryan Benjamin, vice-president of
leadership and HR research at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa.
“Employers are just recognizing that they’ve got to be comfortable not actually having all the answers going into this.”
The rapid shift in cannabis legalization has occurred absent of an
appropriate educational journey for Canadians, according to Reva Seth,
CEO of Business of Cannabis in Toronto.
“We’re going from employers seeing this as a drug to ‘maybe it’s a
medicine, maybe it’s a recreational drug,’” she said. “There’s a real
education gap in terms of how HR feels.”
“It’s a giant void right now… It’s a giant shift that people aren’t
fully prepared for — not employers and not employees,” said Seth. “It’s
going to take a lot of iterations before we get there… (and) there’s a
lot for industry to do in terms of educating employers.”
Modern cannabis is different from most people’s understanding in terms of products, strains and ingestion methods, she said.
“This is all new for most Canadians,” said Seth. “Most Canadians are not actually cannabis users.”
Need for leadership
HR should become educated on cannabis, starting with medical cannabis
and concluding with how the organization treats it going forward, she
Many organizations are still working on this issue as information continues to evolve.
“People will look to HR to really lead that. I think it’s a good
moment for HR departments to take on one of the big pressing changes,”
“Step two is start to step into the stigma issues and look for
potential situations where intervention by HR can prevent this
transition from being difficult.”
The stigma associated with cannabis use and the concern people have
about discussing and sharing their own habits is very real and very
powerful, she said. “HR teams need to be highly aware of this as they
Workplace culture and conversation will need to shift quickly, and HR
can help by “stepping into the awkward conversations,” said Seth.
“This is what HR does best, is take on those messy situations, from dating in the workplace to everything in-between.”
“It will be confusing and unsettling at first for people… It’s such a
shift,” she said. “So many things will just continue as is, because
those who were using, whether recreationally or for medical reasons,
will continue. That’s not going to be different.”
Rather than viewing the subject with trepidation, HR would be wise to
embrace cannabis legalization as an opportunity to lead globally, said
HR has an important role to play in furthering the conversation
within workplaces, in terms of setting policy, restructuring health
benefits or advocating for new cultural norms amongst employees, said
Lori Casselman, chief health advisor at League, a digital health
insurance provider in Toronto.
“Now, we have a better understanding of dates, they’re formalized,”
she said. “Employers do have some catch-up to do, but it’s not overly
A thorough risk assessment of individual organizations is a
recommended action for HR —understanding current policy and identifying
potential exposure or loopholes, said Benjamin.
Once educated, HR must ensure managers and employees are also brought
up to speed through group sessions or pamphlet materials, he said.
“As much broad education as companies can provide to their employees,
the better service they are doing just to make them better-equipped
overall. It will help them at work, but also outside of work.”
It’s important to remember many organizations are already dealing
with recreational cannabis users — just not officially, said Benjamin,
adding employers should ensure they have an appropriate alcohol and drug
policy in place.
“There is a lot of concern around policy: ‘Do we have the right
policies in place? If we don’t, do we have enough time to build new
policies? If we build new policies and then find out new things
post-Oct. 17, can we revise them again?’”
The University of Toronto recently enacted a “Fitness for Work”
guideline as part of its commitment to providing a safe workplace,
updating a long-standing expectation that employees arrive at work
sober, and remain that way throughout the workday.
“While the guideline is new, it mostly serves to reaffirm employee
responsibilities surrounding impairment in the workplace,” said Kelly
Hannah-Moffat, the university’s vice-president of HR and equity.
But fitness-for-work policies that include randomized drug testing
conflict with privacy rights in terms of Canadian law, as cannabis
impairment testing requires further evolution, said Benjamin.
“In Canada, for the vast majority of organizations, that’s just not something that they can’t even consider right now.”
While medicinal marijuana usage may require accommodation by
employers, the approach towards recreational marijuana will be specific
to individual employers, said Casselman.
“Zero tolerance would typically apply as it relates to any type of
substance abuse in a workplace that could impair judgment or ability to
While there’s a “lack of understanding or uncertainty around how to
manage this process” for a majority of employers, HR can help by
simplifying timelines and actions, she said.
“It helps to decrease that feeling of being overwhelmed and unprepared, and it really simplifies the steps,” said Casselman.
“It helps to eliminate the fear of the unknown… This can be much more straightforward with appropriate guidance.”