When it comes to cannabis in the workplace, it doesn’t pay to be a pioneer.
That was one of the messages heard at the Delta Chamber of Commerce’s luncheon on Tuesday (April 24), an event that saw 74 local business people convene to learn about how recreational and medical marijuana legislation could impact their companies.
“I have no opinion on whether or not it’s right or wrong, whether it’s good or bad around the legalization of marijuana, that’s not my role,” Delta Police Chief Neil Dubord said at the start of his presentation. “My role as a chief is for me to be able to provide guidance to this community in relation to the risks associated with our community safety, and to your businesses around community safety.”
Risk-sensitive, safety-critical jobs were a focus of Dubord’s talk: employees like forklift operators, truckers, firefighters and police officers that deal with dangerous equipment and situations in the workplace. He cited studies that said workers who used cannabis were nine per cent more likely to be involved in workplace accidents.
“It means money,” Dubord said. “At the end of the day, whether being workers compensation, whether being benefit providers … it means money to you.”
These kind of statistics are particularly important for risk-sensitive and safety-critical jobs — like the airline pilots who were the subject of another study Dubord mentioned.
In this study, a number of pilots were asked to smoke a joint, or marijuana cigarette, and were tested on a flight simulator four, eight, 24 and 48 hours after. The study found that even 24 hours after the pilots had used marijuana, their decision-making skills and reaction times were still impacted.
“The more important piece is that the pilots didn’t recognize it,” Dubord said. “They thought they were back to normal.”
In light of this research, Dubord said the police department is considering a 24-hour abstinence period before officers are scheduled to work, but doesn’t know how that will be enforced.
It is a marked difference in how medical marijuana is currently legislated.
“When people have a prescription for medical marijuana, that means they can take it like they take an aspirin or another prescribed drug — and they have a right to be able to take that in your workplace,” Dubord said.
However, this does not mean that employees have the right show up to work impaired by drugs — something that is already hard to confirm without a blood test, and a potential issue for businesses when it comes to recreational marijuana.
Matt Houghton, CEO of GroupHEALTH Benefit Solutions, didn’t talk about the impending recreational marijuana legislation, but rather focused his presentation on how existing medical marijuana legislation has impacted company benefit plans.
“The economic issues are something that are really considerable,” Houghton said.
He brought up an example of a medical marijuana producer in Ontario who wanted to be the first to fully-fund medical marijuana for its employees. When Houghton’s company did a cost analysis for them — using an expected use of 10 grams of cannabis a day per person, with a cost of $10 a gram — it came out to a potential $365,000 for a company of 100 people.
“The economic impact actually scared them and they backed off,” he said. “It is massive, and there’s a reason why people are putting caps on this.”
Although the cost has the potential to be considerable for businesses, there are also challenges to restricting coverage to medical marijuana. Most health spending accounts cover medical marijuana, and restricting that spending could taint the tax status of the account.
There are also possible human rights complaints when it comes to not supporting medical marijuana. The Canadian Elevator Industry Welfare Trust Fund faced court when an employee filed a human rights complaint because the company would not cover his medical marijuana prescription. The Nova Scotian Human Rights Commission made a decision in favour of the employee’s coverage, although this was later overturned.
“You probably don’t want to be a pioneer on this,” he said about making decisions on medical marijuana coverage. “As an employer, I’d say you’d probably want to draft behind on policy. You probably don’t want to be out in the forefront.”
Both Dubord and Houghton focused on the uncertainty of marijuana legislation, and that uncertainty was also a theme in the questions asked by audience members after the presentations.
Topics included whether a business can require employees to show medical marijuana prescriptions, including the required dosage (yes to the prescription, unsure about dosage); whether medical marijuana will be covered by MSP (it’s likely, but not yet certain); whether a trucker can use medical marijuana while driving (yes, but they can’t be impaired); and whether an employer can request a drug test if there’s an accident (yes, but it would become legally complex afterwards).
Many comments showed a caution towards pot in the workplace, but the presenters noted there were also some potential benefits — particularly in regard to medical marijuana. One individual asked whether the incoming legislation would see increases to existing addiction services in benefit plans.
It’s not likely, Houghton said, but “in a lot of cases I think you’ll see medicinal marijuana likely replace some other prescribed drugs that are likely as, or even more, addictive than the marijuana itself. Especially in instances for chronic pain.”
Recreational cannabis is now expected to be legalized sometime this fall, Dubord said. The regulations surrounding recreational marijuana and it’s relationship to medical marijuana are still being sorted out, and business owners in Delta will have to wait to see how exactly their companies will be affected.