Preparing for marijuana legalization

Regulators have a lot to figure out before July 1, and so do employers

Preparing for marijuana legalization

By Jeffrey R. Smith

The date that recreational marijuana becomes legal in Canada — July 1, 2018 — may have once seemed far away, but guess what? It’s coming fast. We are now into 2018 and, as of this writing, it’s less than six months away. Is your organization ready for the potential impact of employees having easy access to the drug? If it’s like most organizations — and regulators, for that matter — probably not. There’s still a lot that needs to be figured out.

Legalizing marijuana doesn’t just mean making the drug easy to get anywhere. It’s still going to be heavily regulated. And employers need to figure out their own policies with regards to employees who consume marijuana.

Lawmakers still need to figure out things like enforcement, taxation, limiting access by young people retail infrastructure, where it can be sold, public consumption, and forms in which it can be provided. So nobody really knows yet how easy it will be to get and how prevalent it will be.

Once the legislation comes into force, employees who have marijuana at work or have consumed it before work may have to be treated differently in company policies just because it’s not something illegal anymore and therefore should be considered less serious misconduct. It’s probably easiest to treat it similar to consumption and possession of other intoxicating but legal substances such as alcohol or prescription drugs.

However, it is still an intoxicating substance, and most employers don’t want employees carrying it or consuming it at work, or being impaired by it — particularly at safety-sensitive workplaces. So even though it will be legal, employers will still be within their rights to ban it from the workplace, as most do with alcohol. Policies with progressive discipline and opportunities for employees with addiction issues should be the norm.

Employers will have to keep in mind their obligations under occupational health and safety legislation to maintain a safe workplace. What effect on workplace safety will there be when marijuana is readily available to any adult and the likelihood of impairment increases? Will drug testing become more necessary in safety-sensitive workplaces? What are the privacy implications of this?

For example, after a lengthy battle with its union over implementing drug and alcohol testing, the Toronto Transit Commission began testing its employees in 2017 and immediately there were several positive tests for alcohol and drugs. What will be the result when marijuana is legal and more readily available?

Researchers from the O'Brien Institute for Public Health at the University of Calgary recently told the Canadian Press that they recommend marijuana legalization in Canada be a 10-year project, given the amount of things that need to be worked out. However, employers don’t have nearly that long — they need to be ready in a few months for employees to have easier access to an intoxicating drug that could affect the safety and productivity of their workplaces. 

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