Just because recreational cannabis is now legal in Canada, that doesn’t mean you can roll it, smoke it or vape it at work — at least for now.
Fifty-two per cent of employers surveyed by the Conference Board of Canada in spring 2018 said they were either “concerned” or “very concerned” about the legalization of recreational cannabis. The top concerns cited by employers were workplace safety, impairment or intoxication, and increased use of cannabis both inside and outside the workplace.
Training sessions, conferences and online modules have popped up across the country trying to figure out how to balance the new legislation with concerns over productivity and safety, but the bottom line on workplace policies remains the same — whether or not the substance is legal, employees can’t be impaired at work.
“You’re not going to accept someone coming in high or drunk,” says Bill Zolis, a senior employee benefits consultant at Penmore Callery Group. “It’s not something that’s really going to be acceptable unless it’s medically necessary.”
Workplace drug testing
Canada doesn’t have any federal laws around workplace drug and alcohol testing. Before they hire you, employers may require a drug test as a condition of employment (with your written consent) for safety-sensitive industries such as police, transit, construction or anything that requires using heavy machinery. Random on-the-job drug testing generally isn’t allowed except in specific circumstances, but employers can test after a workplace accident.
One big issue is available tests only measure THC levels, which doesn’t necessarily indicate impairment. The effects of weed generally wear off after a few hours, but it can stay in your system and be detected for 30 days or longer, depending on frequency of use and the type of test used.
Several large public-facing employers have also set policies around consumption after work. Air Canada and WestJet have both banned off-duty cannabis use for positions such as flight attendants, dispatchers, aircraft maintenance engineers and station attendants.
Some police forces allow off-duty use as long as officers show up fit to do their jobs (Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal), while others like the RCMP and Toronto and Halifax police require officers to abstain for at least 28 days before reporting for duty. Calgary police officers are totally prohibited from consuming weed while off duty.
Consuming cannabis at work
What if you’re a graphic designer and smoking marijuana gets the creative juices flowing? Or what if you’re in advertising, a notoriously casual workplace culture, and you share a spliff at a networking event? What if you’re heading out to a holiday party and are just grinding the green stuff in your cubicle?
While the average office worker doesn’t have to worry about drug testing, it’s still a hard no.
For registered medical cannabis patients, employers have a duty to accommodate them the same way they’re required under federal and provincial/territorial human rights legislation to accommodate any employees with disabilities who use prescription medication. While employers are required to provide suitable accommodation at work, a cannabis prescription doesn’t entitle employees to smoke in the workplace, be impaired, or compromise their own or others’ health and safety.
Cannabis vs. alcohol at work
Smoking recreational cannabis is still a long way-off from being protected or acceptable behaviour in a place of employment, even if managers occasionally look the other way at having a glass of wine or pint of beer at lunch.
“It is important to remember that even after legalization, the right of individuals to use marijuana will never exceed the right of an employer to maintain a safe, drug-free work environment,” writes the Benefits Alliance Group in a policy paper on marijuana in the workplace.
Marijuana is fundamentally different than alcohol for two reasons. First, the effect of weed is different than alcohol. A glass of wine at lunch is unlikely to impair you, and if it does, it leaves your system within an hour or two. Cannabis, on the other hand, lingers and can impair you for hours afterwards.
Secondly, weed still has a stigma that wine doesn’t. Is it fair? Perhaps not — and that might change in the future — but it’s true now.
“Because [cannabis is] so new, I don’t think people’s mindsets have changed,” Zolis says. “It’s going to take time. I can tell you that most employers are a little old school and in these days companies are still run by baby boomers and they are pretty well by the book.”
The scariest thing about smoking or talking about how you smoke weed openly at work is that it can affect your career ascent.
“Maybe you’re a person who does this once in a while, but they’re going to peg you in a corner,” Zolis says. “Maybe promotion time comes and and they’re going say, ‘How responsible is Johnny? He’s smoking dope.’ And it could be nothing, it could be no big deal. And someone else is drinking a whole bottle of whiskey, which is way worse, to tell you the truth.”
Ultimately, you have to judge your workplace culture and how accommodating it is. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.