The complete legalization of marijuana is full steam ahead, which will make Canada the second nation in the world, after Uruguay, to completely legalize the cultivation, sale and possession of the drug for medical and recreational purposes. With lots still unknown before the legislation is unveiled, Canadian employers have questions about how legalized cannabis will actually work.
Vice-president of human resources Jason Fleming works in this unique field.
“Aside from the pace of growth, the major factor is that it is one of the only industries I can think of where the legislation that will guide the industry is being developed as we speak,” he says of his work at MedReleaf, the Ontario-based medical cannabis producer. “The framework for the entire industry is changing, day to day, week to week.”
HR expert Fleming came to the medical cannabis industry from the trucking industry to start the human resources department at MedReleaf. He’s since grown to love the field for its fast, dynamic growth, spurred on by Canada’s recent legislative changes.
While medical use of cannabis has been legal since 2001, a bill legalizing recreational use of the substance was recently passed by the Senate. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on June 20, 2018, that by October Canadians will be able to legally buy and grow pot.
Now that companies are preparing policies for managing the impact of legal cannabis in the workplace, Fleming says that organizations can look to existing drug policies for inspiration. Furthermore, he adds that, with the right level of preparation, many businesses should be poised to handle this impending shift.
A PROACTIVE APPROACH
“If we target impairment rather than cannabis, I believe it allows us to have a more holistic and broader approach to mitigating risks,” Fleming says. “You should look at recreational cannabis similarly to alcohol. People are wracking their brains trying to write these policies. I would suggest you can have a lot of the same rules.”
On the other hand, he recommends that companies should handle medically prescribed cannabis in the same way they would any potentially impairing prescription, like one for an opioid.
“These are substances that can have a major improvement on the quality of someone’s life … You need to have an in-depth accommodation analysis that includes a risk assessment.”
He explains that this assessment should ensure that the employer, employee and their treating physician have a plan to mitigate risk, while still allowing for reasonable access to use the medication.
Still, with an expected increase in recreational cannabis users from 22% to 39% post-legalization — from one in five to two in five Canadians — Fleming doesn’t deny that there will be changes in the workplace. But he does emphasize that cannabis use is already happening, so “employers are already dealing with this issue.”
Lisa Kay, president and lead consultant of Peak Performance Human Resources, doesn’t think it will be easy for companies to adapt.
Some of the potential uncertainties and grey areas include issues of detection and reprimand. For instance, she says that cannabis use or impairment can be hard to measure, with the drug staying in a person’s system for many days after imbibing. She also posits a hypothetical scenario where an employee is caught “smoking in the back” and whether that should be dealt with similarly to having a drink in the same situation.
“Companies should be more proactive than reactive, but I think there is an unfortunate trend of reactivity to these issues where it’s not taken seriously until there’s an accident,” Fleming says.
Some of the proactive steps he recommends implementing include holding open dialogues with employees regarding substance use policies during the onboarding process and as regular reminders for staff.
“You can have pre-shift meetings for safety-sensitive jobs, where you can bring up this topic regularly and assess your employees for impairment,” he adds.
Kay presents similar tips, asserting the need to create policies rather than just react to situations. She says that it’s critical to make clear both what the workplace drug policies are and what consequences rule breakers will face.
Kay also says that there hasn’t been much legal precedent set and that there is little research around the longer-term effects of cannabis use and how this could impact the workforce.
“There’s a lot of different questions that just lead to more questions,” Kay says, adding that she expects employers will have to continue to inform themselves as more research becomes available to have the “appropriate guidance” when responding to unforeseen scenarios.
Despite this, she is still relatively confident that most companies who prepare in advance will be capable of managing the upcoming changes.
She echoes Fleming’s comments around medical use, recommending personalized accommodations and discussions with the employee. She also says that companies can work with the employee’s physician to see if alternative prescriptions are available as she believes that cannabis should be considered a “last resort” medication.
ADDRESSING THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
As for suspected use in the workplace, Kay says that how you choose to confront suspected individuals will differ depending on the circumstance.
Though there can be fear around confronting someone directly about impairment at work, she says that this is usually the best way to deal with the issue. “If you’re afraid of asking somebody directly then there’s potential for an incident to occur,” she says.
If direct contact is initiated, she recommends that the conversation be framed from a perspective of concern for the employee, specifically by checking that they’re okay and discussing recent events that have caused concern.
Fleming says that personal use of cannabis doesn’t correlate with performance or productivity, but he agrees that there should not be impairment of any kind in the workplace. He leaves it to the organization’s discretion to decide how at-work use of the substance should be managed, though he does advise that employers put more resources into the addiction services provided by employee assistance programs.
Kay also believes that it is outside of an organization’s jurisdiction to worry about recreational use off-hours — though she does acknowledge that more flexibility may be needed in situations where people want to reach out in concern because of a bond or friendship with their staff.
VARIANCES OF POTENCY
Though more questions are being asked around managing the impact of legal cannabis on the workplace, Fleming notes that the many nuances of the substance are often overlooked.
“When we think of cannabis, a lot of times we think of people smoking, but in reality, as we progress, a lot more research is being done to incorporate cannabis into more traditional modes of medication like capsules, oils, creams [and even inhalers],” he says.
With each method of intake the rate of impairment can vary wildly, affecting how policy around it should be created. Generally, burning or smoking the substance tends to result in a more immediate effect, while ingestion is slower.
Some products can also modify how impaired the consumer actually gets depending on the amount of the main psychoactive component, THC.
“There’s high CBD versus high THC,” he explains. THC is the intoxicating cannabinoid, while CBD, on the other hand, has medical potential providing a range of symptom relief, but it doesn’t get you high.
“There are lots of products that have less than 1% THC … A CBD oil with less than 1% THC compared to a dried flower product with over 20% THC, those are drastically different products, and if you say that’s all the same and you treat that all the same, that’s a shortcoming.”
According to Fleming, the progress made with cannabis products and extracting the different cannabinoids means that policy writers should make sure that they are “not treating all cannabis with the same approach.”
LIGHTING THE TRAIL AHEAD
Kay is uncertain about how the legalization of marijuana will truly affect the workplace due to the many still-unknown legal implications and long-term effects of the drug.
In contrast, Fleming is positive about managing any impacts of recreational cannabis and is satisfied with the Canadian government’s proposed implementation. He recommends that employers take a similarly measured approach, with “a lot of inquiries, and a need for work and policy development.”
And he believes that it’s for the best if companies don’t get too stuck on treating cannabis as a completely unique entity.
“Companies that acknowledge that cannabis is only one of many substances that cause potential impairment and potential safety risks are the companies where this will not necessarily [have] a significant impact. We need to acknowledge that there’s things like opioids and alcohol and sleeping pills and cough medications that pose the same risks in a lot of cases to employees. It’s just taking the tools we’ve already developed to manage these other substances and applying them to cannabis products.”