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EDITOR'S BLOG
Aug 25, 2015

Time to inhale on cannabis coverage

Medical marijuana may make some squeamish, but it's going mainstream
    

By Todd Humber

Prepare to call me a nerd, a square or whatever other derogatory prudish name you can think of — because I’ve never tried marijuana. Never smoked it, never ate a pot brownie and never purposely ingested it. I suppose there is all that second-hand smoke that seems to billow around every concert venue, but I’m not sure that quite counts.

I can’t stand the skunky smell, and have little interest in the mind-altering affects. I’ve been known to enjoy a pint or two on regular occasion, and never turn my nose up at a decent cocktail or a glass of red wine — but alcohol, not pot, is my drug of choice.

I only reveal my unhipness to set the stage for the following comment: It’s time for Health Canada to give marijuana a drug identification number, it’s time for insurance companies to cover it and it’s time for employers to get behind it. 

This is not a slam dunk argument, and opponents can make a pretty solid case against that notion. The scientific evidence of the health benefits of smoking marijuana aren’t clear cut, there are real concerns about worker safety (and yes, throw in jokes about the productivity of stoners) and there remain moral issues around the so-called normalization of using what has long been considered an illegal drug.

But the tide is changing. In the United States, marijuana has been mostly legalized in four states — Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Other jurisdictions will no doubt follow suit in the near future. In Canada, the move to legalize has been slower — but most still see it as a matter of when, not if.

The stigma around marijuana use has all but disappeared. Many people use it openly on the streets, others proudly admit to being regular users — and we’re talking professionals, not potheads. It’s just not taboo anymore, and many argue that cannabis has fewer side effects and long-term problems than legal vices like alcohol and tobacco.

But perhaps the most compelling case to make to employers (as always) is the financial one. Marijuana is cheaper than many prescription drugs, and if it’s helping employees — even if it’s just a placebo effect — then isn’t the idea worth serious consideration?

In a story news editor Liz Bernier is working on for the Sept. 7 issue of Canadian HR Reporter, we found that cracks have appeared in the anti-marijuana armour. We know of at least two examples where medicinal pot is being covered by insurers. There will only be more as time goes on.

But what this can never be is a blank cheque for workers to punch in high, or to ingest marijuana in the office. And that’s where things get very murky, and why the issue isn’t so cut and dry. Earlier this year, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal upheld the firing of a logging worker who smoked weed on the job without legal and medical authorization, according to an article in Canadian Employment Law Today (www.employmentlawtoday.com).

The employee of Selkin Logging in Fraser Lake, B.C., operated a machine similar to an excavator that is used for gripping logs. Years ago, he had been diagnosed with cancer. He smoked six to eight joints a day with another co-worker, but only when his supervisor wasn’t around.

When the employee discovered the drug use, it told him it had zero tolerance for drugs at the worksite. It gave him a letter that stated “if you can’t stop taking drugs on the worksite” and don’t show up for work, then the employee would be considered to have quit, wrote Jeffrey R. Smith in the Canadian Employment Law Today article. The tribunal said this was effectively a dismissal, but upheld it.

There may be rare instances where an employee is allowed to use drugs in the workplace. But it can never be allowed to occur where it could compromise safety, and should only be allowed in cases where a doctor has given it the green light. 

But there’s no denying that, as marijuana goes more mainstream, it merits serious consideration as a prescription
drug to be covered by employee benefit plans. With so many individuals swearing by its positive effects, and the fact that it seems to work more effectively than harsher, more expensive medication with serious side effects, it’s high time for employers to get on the bandwagon.

    
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