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The Legalization of Cannabis in Canada and the Workplace: What Employers Need to Know

The ushering in of legalized recreational cannabis in Canada this week if it has not done so already, will likely shift cultural attitudes and the social acceptance of cannabis use. However, when it comes to the workplace, this new legislation does not significantly change the duties and obligations of employees and employers with respect to smoking pot.

The legalization of cannabis use is not a free pass for employees to light up a joint at work or a ticket to act inappropriately at the office after smoking pot. Just as an employer need not tolerate employees drinking alcohol in the workplace, employers do not need to accept any recreational use of cannabis at work as this remains illegal. Employers can and still should manage unsatisfactory behaviour which may be or is the result of an employee recreationally using cannabis or being impaired because of it. Employers should not feel apprehensive about properly disciplining employees (up to and including termination of employment) for conduct in the workplace who run afoul of this new legislation.

It is prudent for employers to now take the time to review and update their policies that deal with drugs and alcohol. Employers should treat the new reality of legalized recreational cannabis like it treats alcohol and treat medical cannabis like any other prescription drug. Just like alcohol, an employer’s drug and alcohol policy should strictly prohibit the possession or use of recreational cannabis on company premises or while on the job (if that person performs that job off-site). Any violation of a provision such as this should attract the same penalty or consequences as being drunk at the office. Some employers exempt the no alcohol rule at company social events, such as the annual holiday party. Employers are under no obligation to make the same exceptions with respect to recreational cannabis.

At the same time, these policies should reflect the human rights considerations of addiction and medically prescribed cannabis (which was already legal prior to October 17, 2018). Employers need to spell out in clear terms that employees need to disclose to management the need for medical cannabis or any other prescription drug which might affect their impairment or the safety of their fellow employees. With respect to addiction, employers need to be cognizant and reflect in their policies that they are prepared to accommodate any employee with an alcohol or drug addiction to the point of undue hardship. In the same vein, employees need to be aware that they need to engage the employer in the accommodation process, if possible, as this process is a two-way, cooperative process.

Education and training is key for both employers and employees on these issues is key.

We are entering a new era of what is socially acceptable for adults to partake in while in the comfort of their own homes. Notwithstanding this, legalized recreational cannabis should not be a game changer for employees or employers, especially if properly managed.