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Cannabis legalization in Canada – here's what employers should know

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Matt Hands

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6 minute read

Alcohol had its heyday in the workplace - boozy lunches to close deals, late nights to get creative juices flowing, and so on. But eventually, for one reason or another, it lost its lustre – that is, until its recent resurgence with startups battling for top-end talent, which use it to showcase their welcoming culture and laid-back office atmosphere.

But what about cannabis? Now that it's legal, how will companies from tech startups to century-old conglomerates respond to employees and its use? Should rolling papers be provided beside the keg fridge?

There are a lot of grey areas in cannabis, and it's only amplified in the workplace. Is it a party drug and treated like alcohol? Is it like smoking and should be treated like cigarettes? What about those who have a prescription – should it be treated in the same way as Tylenol?

Here’s how employers need to think about cannabis in relation to their workplace, their culture, and the health of their employees.

First steps


According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), defining impairment is vital to reduce the impact of cannabis usage at the workplace, and to ensure a healthy, safe, and productive environment for all workers.

So, if you haven’t done so already, as an employer, the first thing you need is to define impairment. Cannabis is only one form of impairment at the workplace. There are a lot of other factors that could cause impairment beyond illegal or legal drugs including fatigue, certain medical conditions, or stress at home or the office. The impacts of impairment from cannabis can show up as difficulty concentrating, dizziness, drowsiness, or slowed reaction times to name a few - but these impacts aren’t isolated to cannabis.

With cannabis now legal, it would be unfair for any employee to point fingers at another and assume they have a substance abuse problem. Without a clear definition of impairment, it could boil over into a more substantial dispute.

Policies and procedures


Once impairment is defined, CCOHS recommends an appropriate policy and protocols for its management be put in place. It should guide all employees using a fair and consistent approach.

Policies can address any form of impairment, including both medical and recreational cannabis usage. Your policy should include whether or not an employee is allowed to bring cannabis into the office and if so, in what forms. It should dictate its use during work hours and if so, under what conditions.

Once the policy is clearly defined and in place, it’s important to educate staff on the new policies and their nuances so that everyone can follow them accordingly. You can also train supervisory staff on detecting signs of impairment and what to do if they believe someone is impaired. If action is required, it should be done in a private room and in a non-judgmental way, with the goal of communicating your concerns about their safety and the safety of the overall office.

Company group benefits


With the increasing interest in cannabis for medicinal or therapeutic purposes, the question for many employers is whether coverage for medical cannabis is included in their group benefits plan. Some health group benefit suppliers do cover the costs associated with cannabis to provide relief from symptoms associated with conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.


Some major life insurance companies have changed their views on cannabis. For example, many insurers were classifying people that only smoked cannabis as "smokers". A "smoker" in life insurance terms, encompasses all smoking activities and will increase the premium you receive. Recently, some insurers have chosen to alter their stance on those who only smoke cannabis by removing the smoking designation from policies, which translates to lower premiums. If your life insurance provider hasn't changed its stance, it might be time to consider shopping around for new life insurance quotes from more progressive companies - it could save your company a lot of money.

Also, let your new impairment policies dictate how your company will manage cannabis concerning group health benefits. But, know that according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, if they're a medical cannabis user, the employer must accommodate the employee using cannabis if there is a disability or dependence. Still, the general expectation when accommodating for a prescription is that people don't come to work impaired, or smoke in the workplace, especially when safety is a concern. If this is the case, your new work policy regarding impairment comes into play - you could implement alternative scheduling, move them out of a safety-sensitive position, or alter their duties.

Beyond the office


Another way companies are attempting to recruit talent is by advertising their regular social outings or lavish events. Whatever your policies have been on alcohol, both for on and off-site activities, it now needs to include cannabis. Providing clear communication on transportation home from an event is critical, and a company may even go so far as to pay for taxis or Ubers for its employees.

Impaired driving is illegal and recent updates to legislation have increased the associated fines and penalties. If an employee is caught, not only would they be slapped with a stiff penalty, but would be relegated to purchasing significantly more expensive car insurance from a high-risk provider – that is, if they’re still even allowed to drive. But why should an employer care? If an employee gets in a car accident, after becoming impaired by intoxicants provided by the employer, the company could be legally liable for both criminal and civil litigation.

Cultural party shift


A growing number of startups are beginning to ban alcohol from the office entirely. Salesforce CEO, Mark Benioff tweeted out, "No room for alcohol or drugs in a start-up or tech culture. The CEO has to set the tone from the top and enforce.” Is there an opportunity for cannabis to be included in the mix as well? Only time, or a strong HR policy, will tell.

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Matt Hands
Matt is a guest author and the senior business unit manager for insurance at Ratehub, a website that compares insurance rates in Canada, as well as mortgage rates, high-interest savings accounts, chequing accounts, and credit cards with the goal to empower Canadians to search smarter and save money.


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