Across Canada, the conversation around marijuana in the workplace has been heating up.
Legislation is loosening. Social perceptions are shifting. And an increasing number of companies are extending their group benefits coverage to include medical cannabis products.
Yet finding accurate information about managing medical marijuana at work is still a challenge for employers. Whether due to misinformation or a lack of awareness, many organizations don’t know their rights, responsibilities, and best practices regarding modern marijuana policies. This leaves them open to significant risk, including legal liability and safety incidents.
The full legalization of recreational marijuana (a.k.a cannabis, the term we’ll use from now on) is expected as early as July 2018. This means now is the time for employers to educate themselves and begin adapting their workplace policies. Though controversial, it’s no longer a topic HR managers can avoid facing head-on.
Though controversial, medical cannabis is no longer a topic HR managers can avoid facing head-on.
We believe that facilitating conversations around medical cannabis can lead to reduced risk to employers and more inclusive, healthier workplaces. And those conversations must begin with informed, fact-based, and balanced knowledge.
To delve into this complex topic, we teamed up with Jason Fleming, CHRL to untangle what employers need to know right now about medical cannabis at work: from human rights obligations to writing an effective drug and alcohol policy.
Before we continue…
To help Canadian businesses be better prepared for the cultural and legislative changes to come, we’ve put together a complete guide on what employers need to know about medical cannabis today.
Managing medical cannabis with Jason Fleming, CHRL
Can you tell us about your background in HR and current role at MedReleaf?
I’m the Director of HR at MedReleaf, one of Canada’s largest producers of medical cannabis. Before joining MedReleaf, I was the Director of HR for the Seaboard Transport Group, Canada’s largest transporter of petroleum products.
MedReleaf is a licensed medical cannabis producer. We’re regulated by Health Canada, and are the first and only ICH-GMP and ISO 9001 certified cannabis producer in North America.
In addition to patient care and research, we’ve taken a leadership role in preparing employers for managing cannabis in the workplace through our Employer Advisory Services. These services include cannabis education for employers and employees, policy advisory services, and medical cannabis benefits support and consultations.
Our goal is to help employers ensure they’re keeping their organizations compliant, safe and productive in light of the increased use of medical cannabis in Canada.
“Our goal is to help employers ensure they’re keeping their organizations compliant, safe and productive in light of the increased use of medical cannabis in Canada.”
What are some of the most common questions or concerns about medical cannabis at work?
The biggest concern I hear about is a lack of training and education for employers. They are looking for support on what is needed to prepare their workplaces. Specifically, they want to know how to balance safety and their duty to accommodate.
Cannabis is misunderstood and, unfortunately, a lot of people are using anecdote and misinformation to build policies for their company. This is creating risks for the workplace. One of the biggest risks I see is that employers are failing to educate themselves and are taking overly broad, restrictive positions against cannabis without considering their duty to accommodate.
“The biggest concern I hear about is a lack of training and education for employers.”
In terms of misconceptions, the biggest one for employers is that all cannabis products get people ‘high’ and that medical cannabis patients are high at all times when they use cannabis products. In reality, a number of medical cannabis products are non-psychoactive are therefore relatively simple to accommodate in the workplace.
Can you elaborate on the employer’s duty to accommodate?
Under Human Rights legislation, individuals in the workplace are protected from discrimination on the basis of medical need, disability, age, sex or creed. Employers must accommodate an individual’s need—including their need to use prescription drugs like cannabis—to the point of undue hardship. This is known as the duty to accommodate.
This means that there are significant risks when attempting to implement a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to medical cannabis at work.
What are the most important things you believe employers should know right now about medical cannabis at work?
First, employers need to ensure that they are maintaining a safe workplace. Assess your workplace to understand if any of your employees occupy safety-sensitive positions.
“First, employers need to ensure that they are maintaining a safe workplace.”
If you have safety-sensitive workers (i.e. heavy equipment operators or truck drivers), you need to ensure that you have a separate policy and procedure for handling their use of medical cannabis ASAP. Safety-sensitive workers pose a particularly high safety risk if they are impaired at work. Communication with them as well as a certified HR advisor is your best line of defence.
The second thing I recommend for employers is to develop policies and accommodation strategies for both medical and recreational cannabis. These should support employees while protecting the organization.
In your experience working with Canadian organizations, you’ve developed a unique framework for a ‘categorized’ drug and alcohol policy. Can you explain the framework?
About a year ago, there were a lot of articles telling employers to create a distinct cannabis policy for their workplace. This doesn’t work.
I’ve consistently advised employers to avoid building an entire policy around a particular substance. It’s not sustainable. What happens is you end up with multiple policies, and when the law changes, you have to rewrite the whole thing. This becomes laborious, confusing, and increases the organization’s legal risks.
“I’ve consistently advised employers to avoid building an entire policy around a particular substance. It’s not sustainable.”
Instead, I recommend that employers build a drug and alcohol policy based on a broad ‘substance categorization model’.
What I mean by this is that you group impairment-causing substances into four categories based on their legality and medical use. You then create a management plan for each of the four groups, including accommodation strategies, usage, and disciplinary actions. As a substance moves from illegal to legal (such as recreational cannabis), it moves to a new category within the framework. There is no need to re-write any part of the policy.
In my opinion, this is a simpler and more effective strategy.
How have you seen employers handle group benefits coverage for medical cannabis?
After the announcement from Shoppers Drug Mart that they would be covering medical cannabis for their employees, we noticed that many other employers across Canada started inquiring about the best way to add cannabis coverage to their plans and manage cannabis use among their workforce.
There are options, but it’s still a new space. You’ll have to do some research to find out what’s best for your organization and for your employees. We’re happy to work with employers to offer product discounts, product information, and workplace accommodation plans.
How do you think the increased use of medical cannabis—and eventually recreational cannabis—will impact organizational culture?
Although I don’t think it will be that drastic, there likely will be some cultural implications. The manner in which employers handle cannabis over the next year will certainly be demonstrative of their company culture and level of transparency.
For example, if employers are proactive and engage in open and honest dialogue around their plans for managing cannabis at work, it can reinforce a positive, transparent company culture based on communication and respect for employees.
“The manner in which employers handle cannabis over the next year will certainly be demonstrative of their company culture.”
If employers avoid speaking about cannabis or take a harsh stance against medical cannabis use, it may signal to their employees that they have outdated attitudes regarding transparency or employee wellbeing. I think any dialogue with employees should emphasize workplace safety. This way, employees understand their employer is proactively trying to remove safety risks in the workplace.
I also think the way cannabis is accommodated—or not accommodated—impacts culture. Every accommodation request is an opportunity for employers to show respect and compassion towards their employees.
The HR Guide to Medical Cannabis at Work
To help Canadian businesses be better prepared for the cultural and legislative changes to come, Collage and MedReleaf have put together a complete guide on what employers need to know about medical cannabis today.
The purpose of the guide is to provide visibility into medical cannabis practices and policies, a topic that is difficult for employers to find accurate information on today. By doing so, we can help facilitate conversations between employers and employees, and support both safety and legislative requirements at work.
- Facts you need to know about medical cannabis
- Current cannabis laws in Canada
- Accommodating medical cannabis use
- How to write an effective drug and alcohol policy
- Medical group benefits coverage options
Thank you to Jason and the entire MedReleaf team.
An employer’s approach to drug and alcohol policies, occupational health and safety and employee accommodation can raise a myriad of legal issues, including with respect to testing, discipline and accommodation. These issues should be addressed on a case-by-case basis, as they arise. This article does not intend to provide any specific or actual legal advice, but rather, provides some broad and important considerations. Employers may want to consult legal counsel on specific issues.