What will marijuana in the workplace mean?

Ending the stigma on cannabis use at work


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There are a few age-old traditions around the office that never seem to go out of style despite the evolution of work culture: gossiping over coffee in the morning, afternoon smoke breaks and even a lunchtime tipple during crunch time. Now, with the legalization of marijuana on the event horizon, how long will it be before a morning toke or a joint at lunch becomes the norm, if ever?

Sam James, owner of Sam James Coffee Bar and Cut Coffee, suspects that recreational uses of cannabis are already taking place in many workplaces. 

Thinking forward to when legalization hits, James believes recreational use will have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. 

“If you can handle it, and you’re not impaired, then it would be OK to use it,” he says. This use would be in the context of employees toking up over lunch, similar to enjoying a beer with your co-workers. 
However, the upcoming legalization of recreational pot is unlikely to result in all employees showing up stoned out of their minds the day after regulation comes into effect. 

Research compiled by the International Centre for Research in Drug Policy shows that regulated cannabis markets don’t lead to a significant increase in individuals using cannabis.

What might change is the way people feel about their use of cannabis at work — provided it is part of the accepted work culture and doesn’t contradict workplace policies. Right now, there might be a sort of ritual in place: eye drops, mouthwash and incessant handwashing to make sure the smell of marijuana is removed prior to going back to your desk. Upon legalization, some of that stigma might disappear.

According to Adam Greenblatt, head of Quebec Engagement at Tweed, a Health Canada licensed producer of medical cannabis, “People who are using cannabis at work today don’t have the option of choosing a CBD strain.”

CBD is a non-psychoactive compound of cannabis, which has the ability to counteract the psychoactive, “high” effects of THC. So rather than encouraging people to get baked at work, recreational legalization might open the doors for individuals to incorporate non-psychoactive options as part of their menu. 

CBD-only or CBD-rich strains result in anxiety-relieving effects. Perhaps a more favourable option to the sluggish effects of alcohol? 

“With alcohol, we have the benefit of a legal limit” says Lorenzo Lisi, practice group leader of Aird & Berlis LLP’s Workplace Law Group. 

“If someone uses alcohol to the extent that they’re unable to perform duties of their job or appear intoxicated, that’s going to be a problem for employers.” 

The same goes for cannabis: “If someone is struggling or appears clearly under the influence, it would not be any different than if they were drinking,” says Lisi.

Currently, the use of cannabis in the workplace is restricted to medical patients. However, with the Liberal government set to introduce legislation for a regulated and controlled recreational framework, it won’t be long before employers and employees will have to navigate a complex new territory in the workplace.

Although medical users have the law on their side, the process of obtaining accommodation for their cannabis use in the workplace is still arduous and, at times, unsuccessful.

“If medical cannabis is required for the purposes of an individual’s disability, in the treatment of a health condition, then that is simply an issue of accommodation, and there is an obligation on the part of the employer to accommodate the employee to the point of undue hardship,” Lisi says.

This duty to accommodate arises from the law — legally, there is a duty to accommodate individuals who may encounter a barrier that arises as a result of a prohibited grounds of discrimination, as per the Ontario Human Rights Code.

However, there is still an abundance of cited cases where patients have faced severe discrimination with respect to their medical uses of cannabis. 

According to Jordan Waltman, a lawyer with Littler LLP: “Any legalization of cannabis for recreational uses will likely require a social shift away from the traditional notions of recreational use of marijuana,” he says. A shift that, he adds, will also have to be reflected in workplace policies and management practices. 

“The intersection of legalization and the workplace has to be assessed with respect to the purposes of cannabis use, how it relates to impairment and work getting done and the employer’s obligation to maintain a healthy and safe workplace,” Waltman says.

In certain contexts, the stigma of using cannabis for recreational and medicinal purposes is met with open-mindedness. 

Lisi will continue the discussion about cannabis in the workplace later this month at the O’Cannabiz conference, April 21-23, at the Sheraton Centre.

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Ljubica Kostovic is a cannabis advocate and the director of communications and research at a medical cannabis education service.

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