Weed and the Workplace: What Employers Should Know and What Employees Should Expect from the Legalization of Marijuana

The legalization of marijuana in July of this year will bring changes to workplaces and affect thousands of people. Communication and education are the keys to understanding these new regulations and smoothing the transition.

Last month, Bird Richard held a “Marijuana in the Workplace” seminar. The event was hosted by two partners of the employment law firm centrally located in Ottawa. Bird Richard specializes in laws that concern employers. The firm’s main areas of concern are human rights violations, wrongful dismissals, and employment rights.

The seminar on April 10th drew a range of employers from different sectors and brought their attention to the many changes that will be taking place in light of the legalization of marijuana. The lawyers explained key laws and documents including the Ontario Cannabis Act and the Workplace Health and Safety Act, bridging the gap between theory and practice by answering the questions and concerns of Canadian employers. There were also, of course, a certain amount of misconceptions about the changes to come and the effect they will on the workplace that needed to be cleared up.

A major consequence of the new cannabis policy is that employers will have to create new policies specifically for marijuana consumption. They must be able to control the issue, even if what they’re dealing with is now a legal substance.

The biggest concern at the seminar seemed to be the handling of impaired employees; should employers tell their workers to go home for the day if they suspect that they’re under the influence of this drug? The question was posed many times, and Bird responded by saying that yes, employers should absolutely do this.

Employers only need to suspect that an employee is high to be able to send them home. They are not required to prove anything. “Employers need to be sure workers are giving 100 percent.” said Bird, “It is not a disciplinary event, but a safety event.” He continued by explaining the responsibilities of employers under the Workplace Health and Safety Act to ensure the safety of employees. If an employee is impaired and their employer does not catch it, the likelihood of a workplace accident may increase.

If an employer fails to take precautions where marijuana is concerned and as a result someone gets hurt, they’ll be the ones responsible. In extreme circumstances, employers even risk jail time.

While the Cannabis Act has specific rules regarding the workplace, it is difficult to predict every scenario that may play out following legalization. The seminar stressed the importance of being educated on the new policies and communicating it to employees.

“On day one, no one is going to know or understand it if they haven’t been educated. It will be illegal to legal overnight,” said Bird.

Another popular question was in regards to the difference between marijuana policies and alcohol policies in the workplace. Bird and MacCrimmon highlighted many areas that are unclear and will potentially create confusion: for one thing, there are many kinds of marijuana and several ways to consume it. Not everyone is aware of the effects marijuana can have on the body, whereas those of alcohol tend to be better known. While we have standardized measurements for alcohol and ways of judging someone’s level of intoxication, these rules fall into a grey area when it comes to marijuana.

A very big change that will happen in the workplace will be centred around medicinal marijuana. 

This distinction will affect the workplace and be seen in stages as early as the hiring process. Even though employers can’t directly ask if the potential employee consumes marijuana, they’re entitled to ask if there’s something that might impede their job performance.

On the other hand, employers must ask many questions and clarify with their employees regarding medicinal marijuana.

In order to accommodate employees that have a prescription for marijuana, employers need to ask basic questions such as:

Who prescribed this to you? When did they? Are there specific times you need to consume it? Is it necessary to consume it in the workplace? 

In the seminar the lawyers discussed the possibility of designated areas to consume marijuana in the workplace in order to accommodate those with medical prescriptions. They presented this as a last resort solution, since even a designated area for designated individuals could open a door to many related questions and problems.

The seminar shed light on a popular misconception, reminding employers that even if a person is authorized to consume marijuana at work, it’s not an automatic grant or an open door policy. Employers must take many precautions for the sake of safety and efficiency.

“Employers need to be aware that communication is key. Employees will be taken by surprise. Start thinking about it before it happens,” said MacCrimmon.

Those who attended the seminar said it brought their attention to the many new issues that the legalization of marijuana will breed. Elizabeth Rodgers, the Director of human resources at Social Research and Demonstration Corporation, said she will definitely use this information when making her new policy. She said that even though she has a policy for alcohol in the workplace, this new policy will be completely different. 

Everyone will be affected by marijuana legalization in some way, inside or outside the workplace. With so little transition time, it might be a good idea for us all to think about the changes we’ll be seeing in the near future, and how we should prepare for them.