Managing the Legalization of Cannabis in the Workplace

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5 September 2023

Managing the Legalization of Cannabis in the Workplace

It’s on the mind of every employer in Canada, and in some U.S. states as well: Cannabis legalization.

The questions are numerous and answers scant, in particular for employers operating safety sensitive worksites. Due to their duty to provide a safe work place, employers don’t have the luxury of gray areas or trial-and-error, despite the unfamiliar territory of legalized cannabis. (Learn more in 4 Things Employers Can Do to Prepare for Marijuana Legalization).

Since the inception of the idea of cannabis legalization in Canada (cannabis is set to become legal nationwide in October 2018), I have been asked many questions by clients and business owners. These, in particular, are top of mind:

  1. What can I do to protect my employees and keep worksites safe after cannabis is legal?
  2. Do I have a duty to accommodate recreational use?
  3. If I have a worksite incident, how do I determine if it is due to cannabis impairment?

Here we'll take a look at these questions – and how employers can address them.

A Look at Marijuana in the Workplace

Dr. Charl Els is an Occupational Psychiatrist and Addictions Specialist who gave some perspective on the coming changes to the recreational drug landscape in his 2016 article for The Canadian Journal of Addiction, “Marijuana and the Workplace.” According to Dr. Els, “The 2017 First Canada Cannabis Survey found that 7.7% of Canadians who are using marijuana reported using at or before work on a weekly or daily basis.”

Impairment, in the case of marijuana and other cannabis products, depends on the individual, but can look like a decline in cognitive ability, judgement, coordination, reaction time, or ability to multi-task. The role impairment plays in occupational risk has led researchers to use driving as a proxy for safety-sensitive positions. For example, Dr. Els reports using a crash-risk analogy to conclude that the use of cannabis is not recommended in safety-sensitive and decision-critical settings. His team is currently completing a more rigorous systemic review in collaboration with Occupational and Environmental Medical Association of Canada to verify their findings.

Free Download: What Your Company's Drug and Alcohol Policy May Be Missing (and How to Get It Right)

Results of a 2017 Government of Canada survey reported “39% of recreational users have driven a vehicle within two hours of using in the past 30 days.” Canada's Bill C46, the act to amend the Criminal Code regarding marijuana, gives the public an idea of what will be used in a road side test, but the current standardized field sobriety testing may not be sufficient for safety sensitive workplaces because we don’t know what constitutes a safe level of THC, or how it varies with each individual; for example, impairment under the influence of a substance with 6% THC concentration versus “shatter,” a substance that can contain up to 90%, would look very different.

Once cannabis becomes legal in Canada, it will be regulated by the same provincial bodies that regulate alcohol. In Alberta, that is the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC). "Designing and validating an on-site test for marijuana that can reliably detect impairment is a promising research area,” Dr. Els said.

Fitness for duty testing is one effective first line of defense for every employer hiring workers for safety sensitive positions. Pre-access, post incident, and reasonable suspicion testing also empower employers and employees to safeguard their workplaces. (Learn more in Empowering Your Workforce with Reasonable Suspicion Training).

How to Mitigate the Effects of Cannabis in the Workplace

Here are five ways in which workplace testing and a third-party administrator (TPA) can help you mitigate risk before and after cannabis legalization:

1. Identify your safety goals and your needs to fulfill those goals.

A TPA helps you determine what kind of testing is ideal for your organization. For example, at SureHire we meet with you to understand your business, including how, when, and where you operate and the associated health and safety risks.

2. Communicate a comprehensive policy.

Getting the conversation started among employees in the workplace is one of the best ways to mitigate risk. A policy should support your drug testing and alcohol testing program, clarify duty-to-accommodate for recreational drug users, and uphold your duty to provide a safe work place. A TPA is experienced in identifying testing needs for all safety sensitive positions, can lead the policy writing within your organization and facilitate the policy roll out to both new and existing employees.

3. Make testing accessible.

Easy access to a testing facility removes barriers and ensures your testing program will be effectively implemented. SureHire’s services can be accessed at multiple facilities across Canada, as well as at mobile testing sites.

4. Provide internal support for the DER (Designated Employee Representative)

Employers can provide support for the DER to interpret results and implement next steps in an assessment should an employee have a positive test result. That internal support also includes provision of an substance abuse professional to facilitate return-to-work and follow-up programs.

5. Provide employee drug and alcohol awareness training and supervisor training.

A TPA can provide a neutral environment in which employees can learn and ask questions outside the presence of supervisors and management. SureHire offers two online courses: a drug and alcohol awareness course for employees and reasonable suspicion training for supervisors to be able to identify workplace substance abuse and know how to properly schedule reasonable suspicion testing.

Though there is much to be deliberated on the subject of legalized cannabis in Canada, one thing is clear: the danger of a positive test result. Oral fluid testing, urine testing and blood testing doesn’t test for impairment, but keeps employers in control of their worksite. Like strategy, capital and talent recruitment are pertinent to your business plan, if your policy is up-to-date and reflects your safety goals, you will have success.

For more information on implementing a drug and alcohol testing program, or for a free trial of drug and alcohol awareness or reasonable suspicion training courses, please contact SureHire at 1-866-944-4473 or email