Legalizing Marijuana – Weeding out the pitfalls

Canadian flag with marijuana leaf in center

Federal legislation to legalize marijuana is expected to be tabled in the House of Commons in spring 2017. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hasn’t kept his promise to legalize the drug as soon as he took office but he has set the process in motion. This may be good news for many of our country’s citizens but it is also very troubling for the workplace.

“Construction work is a high-risk, safety-sensitive operation,” says Barb Butler, president of management-consultant firm Barbara Butler and Associates Inc. “Construction companies recognize that. Essentially, they have a legal obligation under the Occupational Health & Safety Act, and possible under the country’s Criminal Code, to ensure that workers are fit for work.”

According to Butler, the best way to ensure this is to have a clearly written alcohol and drug policy that speaks to the use of alcohol, illicit drugs, and other mood-altering substances and responsible use of medications. “Employees need to know what the rules are,” she says.

The stats

An impact study on the impact of marijuana legalization in Colorado, published in September 2015 (retail marijuana businesses began operating in the state in 2014), found some startling facts. Within the first year alone, marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 32 per cent. Toxicology reports with positive marijuana results for driving under the influence increased 45 per cent.

Similarly, the report found that there was a 29 per cent increase in the number of marijuana-related emergency room visits in 2014, and a 38 per cent increase in the number of marijuana-related hospitalizations. Within three years of medical marijuana being commercialized, there was a 46 per cent increase in marijuana-related hospitalizations compared to the three years prior.

The Canadian way

In conjunction with the making adult recreational use of marijuana legal in Canada, the Canadian government has also broadened access to medicinal marijuana. The days of having to purchase your supply from one of 34 designated, secure Health Canada-approved sites ended officially on August 24, 2016. In its stead, anyone who gets authorization from a doctor to use marijuana can grow his own or have a friend grow it, provided they have prior Health Canada approval. And what’s not to say that many more people will grow it regardless of whether or not they have authorization from a doctor. The police have neither the time nor resources to enforce it.

Going back to the Colorado research study, numbers show that during 2009 to 2012 when medical marijuana was commercialized, the yearly average number of interdiction seizures of Colorado marijuana increased 375 per cent. During 2013 to 2014 when recreational marijuana was legalized, these seizures increased another 34 per cent.

These statistics point to the potential of more widespread access and use of marijuana in Canada in the coming months and years ahead and more important, quite possibly in the workplace.

“The changes to make marijuana more accessible for medical reason and the pending legislation have appeared to move forward without recognizing the impacts on employers who still have to ensure the safety of all workers on a job site,” says Butler. “The potential impact on many industries is significant, including construction.”

According to Butler, having an updated health and safety policy that provides for the inclusion of mood-altering drugs is critical to employers acting in accordance with Occupational Health & Safety Act.

“Policies need to spell everything out,” she says. “They have to clearly identify what the rules are as set out in the company’s alcohol and drug policy. They also have clearly outline the investigative tools to be used to identify a violation, as well as the consequences for those found breaking the rules.”

Butler also advises that these policies should outline prevention and assistance programs available for those individuals considered to be in need of help for an alcohol or drug problem.

“The policy cannot be two paragraphs that simply says you can’t do drugs,” adds Butler. “Police have clear laws in place about impaired driving. They also have investigative tools and clear consequences when people are in violation. In the case of businesses, the owner has the legal responsibility to ensure that employees are fit for work. And, as the owner of a company, it’s in your best interest to ensure that contractors abide by a parallel set of rules.”

Employers also need to become aware of the symptoms of marijuana use.

An article written by Jo McGuire in the September 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety magazine identified these signs as including: delayed decision making, erratic cognitive function, diminished concentration, distortions in time, visual-distance tracking, impaired memory, paranoia and drowsiness.

“Recognize the signs and symptoms of all substance abuse that can impact safety in the workplace,” states the article. “Impaired employees are not safe employees.”

And Butler certainly concurs.

“Employers should really be starting to look at this issue,” she concludes. “They need to recognize the importance to be clear on what their expectations are and to have everything clearly spelled out in their health and safety policies. There have already been significant changes in this area over the last two years. And with Prime Minister Trudeau’s plan to legalize marijuana, it’s only going to become more of a challenge in the future.”