Weed and the workplace

Cannabis legalization: a cause for concern and confusion at workplaces


Although recreational cannabis use is now legal in Canada, grocers are still trying to determine if even one toke is over the line when it comes to workplace use.

Canada became the first G7 nation to legalize recreational cannabis use on Oct. 17, making it the only drug approved for both recreational and medicinal use. Yet, a recent Ipsos study suggests there’s a sizeable gap between management and employee perceptions of the policies governing its use in the workplace.

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of working Canadians surveyed by Ipsos said clear expectations around the use of cannabis in the workplace have not been adequately communicated by their employer. That said, 55% of managers believe their employees clearly understand management’s expectations, with only 21% saying their employees do not.

Meanwhile, a pre-legalization report from the Conference Board of Canada found more than half (52%) of all organizations are either concerned or very concerned about the legalization of cannabis as it pertains to the workplace, expressing reservations about everything from workplace safety to impairment during working hours.

While many employers are “well on their way” to formalizing policies around cannabis use, others still “have a bit of work to do,” says Allison Cowan, director of total rewards, HR and labour relations research at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa.

Cowan predicts workplace issues surrounding legalization will be a learning process for employers, particularly as it pertains to safety. “You don’t really know what you don’t know,” she says. “There are all sorts of things that create safety incidents in work environments that people don’t always think about.”

Grocers contacted by Canadian Grocer indicated they are updating—or have already updated—their employee policies in the wake of cannabis legalization.

“Yes, we have updated our policy regarding alcohol and drugs in the workplace to reflect the changes in legislation,” said Catherine Thomas, senior director of external communication for Loblaw, in an e-mail statement. “It outlines our policy that colleagues are not allowed to consume recreational cannabis or alcohol at work or prior to work.”

Jennifer McCrindle, Sobeys’ manager, external communications, says the company has updated its alcohol and drug policy, but expects legalization will have “little impact” on its operations.

According to McCrindle, the policy is built around the principle that its 120,000 employees shall be “fit for duty” at all times. That means “being able to perform assigned duties in a safe and productive manner without any limitations due to the use or after-use of alcohol, drugs or medications.”

Neil Kudrinko, owner of Kudrinko’s in Westport, Ont., says cannabis will be treated the same way as alcohol. “[Both] have no place inside the workplace and are strictly prohibited,” he says.

In a recent poll, 30.6% of respondents indicated they are very concerned about the impact of recreational cannabis use at their work- place, while 16.3% said they’re slightly concerned. However, nearly 45% said they are not at all concerned.

Benjamin Aberant, a partner in the labour and employment group at law firm McCarthy Tétrault in Toronto, says there are several issues for employers stemming from employee cannabis use, but workplace safety is the “foremost” concern. “Canadian employers are required by occupational health and safety legislations to provide safe workplaces,” he says. “There is a concern among employers that increased use of cannabis will result in higher incidences of impairment in the workplace.”

Cowan, meanwhile, speculates there could be several areas for concern stemming from cannabis consumption, from individuals moving shopping carts around in the parking lot, to trucks backing up to the loading dock.

Employees themselves acknowledge legalization will have some impact on the workplace, with 55% of those surveyed by Ipsos believing it will lead to an increase in health and safety incidents, 40% saying it will produce more absenteeism, and 16% saying it will compromise work quality and productivity.

But policies regarding off-duty use, such as Loblaw’s stipulation that employees cannot use cannabis prior to work, remain somewhat murky. “As a general rule, employers cannot usually dictate what an employee does in their off-duty hours,” says Aberant. “The question is whether or not those off-duty activities have any impact on the workplace. Therefore, so long as a person is not actually impaired when they are reporting to work, employers generally cannot control an employee’s off-duty conduct.”

According to the Ipsos study, only 13% of employees say they’re somewhat/very likely to use cannabis before going to work. That jumps to 26% for after- hours socializing with co-workers.

Theoretically, after-hours use should not impact an employee’s functionality at work. Experts say a cannabis high can last up to six hours, depending on how much is ingested, how it is ingested (smoked or eaten) and tolerance. The latter, of course, might also be in short supply among employers.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s November 2018 issue.