Employee Protections in the Wake of Cannabis Legalization

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It’s been several weeks since Canada legalized cannabis for non-medical purposes. While many organizations have proactively updated workplace impairment policies, many are still in the process of doing so.

Furthermore, Canadians at large are figuring out how to introduce cannabis into their lives and how to make decisions that don’t negatively impact their job, their right to drive, and their home. This is no time for confusion.

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The good news is that cannabis legalization isn’t all that complicated as far as the workplace goes. Medical cannabis sits with workplace legislation that oversees accommodation and safe work practices. Managing workplace impairment is the same as it’s been for years, but now it’s in the spotlight. What is so different about cannabis that’s making businesses of all shapes and sizes nervous?

One part of the equation is that old marijuana stigma lurking in the shadows. That’s the nature of stigma; it doesn’t fade easily even when national perception is shifting. On its way out, stigma can show its ugly face one last time by burying itself in the undercarriage of unintentional bias. Cannabis has long been associated with traits that are less than desirable in the workplace. It’s been associated with social gatherings and secretive intoxicating behavior, and misuse can have fatal results. It’s not surprising that it leaves organizations nervous about the risks involved.

There is a lot at stake for employees using cannabis which hasn’t been emphasized in news coverage. Employees are required to provide disclosure about medical cannabis when accommodation is needed. Disclosure is also required for due diligence in safety sensitive positions. In the past year, I’ve heard more recommendations for employees to voluntarily disclose medical cannabis use even if no accommodation is required. This is an ideal state for open and transparent environments, but to some degree we’re still learning to walk before we run.

Yesterday it was reported that Clayton Hannah, a millwright living in Edmonton, had a job offer withdrawn from Tolko Industries after disclosing that he previously consumed medically authorized cannabis. Although he had been treating Follicular Lymphoma, a slow progressing blood cancer, he hadn’t consumed cannabis for 6 months prior. His pre-employment urinalysis results were negative, further validating his abstinence. Hannah has filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission against Tolko for discrimination on the basis of his disability. The outcome of this case would demonstrate whether employment can be denied on the basis of a previous need for medically authorized cannabis. We presume that although Hannah has a long-term medical condition, he has been deemed fit for work by his doctor. Previous case law suggests Tolko’s actions would not be permissible, however, each case is considered individually.   

Workplace Recommendations

Cannabis legalization presents an opportunity to tighten up foundational human resources practices. Actions quickly teach current and future employees about an organization’s values and ethics. Organizational values can drive top talent either to or from a company.

There are several actionable steps that can be taken to tighten up workplace practices and keep an organization both safe and inclusive:

  • Review and update policies so they are reflective of modern human rights and safety requirements.

  • Examine organizational processes, such as recruitment and scheduling, to ensure that HR practices are not unintentionally discriminatory.

  • Deploy leader and employee cannabis and impairment education with equal emphasis. Cannabis and impairment education can equip leaders and employees with the means to make the right decisions, when they’re needed.   

  • Review any special considerations that surround how and where cannabis can safely be consumed at work, where medical authorization exists.

  • Reinforce a supportive work environment that provides employees with outlets to obtain safe and confidential counselling. Many EAPs provide addiction-based counselling services. Organizations wishing to take a more progressive approach to EAP can encourage employees to seek assistance to discuss their fears surrounding their cannabis use or others. It is not uncommon for employees to experience fear and anxiety associated with cannabis consumption at work and the possible repercussions.  

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It’s time to add to the dialogue about safe and legal medical cannabis consumption at work. Authorization doesn’t necessarily mean medicating during work hours, however, patient registrations are projected to increase. It is imperative that Canadians understand how to access legal cannabis so they can medicate safely, responsibly, and in accordance with workplace policies. Leaving this element out of the dialogue can cause confusion, fear, and secrecy, which are all significant safety concerns.  

The free course, ‘Cannabis Legalization: Employee Impacts’, was created to provide neutral fact-based education about cannabis related human rights protections, legal access, and the importance of understanding workplace policy. The goal of this course to answer some of the questions that aren’t yet being aired at work. The vision of this course is to empower employees to make responsible and informed decisions which will lead to a trickle-up effect with safety and inclusion in workplaces across the country.

Erin Gratton, CHRL is an independent Instructional Designer and Facilitator specializing in Human Resources and related legislation. Erin has dedicated the past 20 years in Human Resources focusing on employee and leader education and productivity, onboarding, workplace equity, equality, and human rights. Learn more…