Is Zero Tolerance Realistic with Legalized Cannabis?

Nov 2, 2017

With medical and recreational cannabis slated to become legal across Canada in July 2018, employers are now struggling with how they will regulate its use in the workplace.

The reality being dealt with is that drug tests such as urinalysis and oral fluid swabs cannot determine impairment from cannabis, but can only detect traces in the subject’s system from past usage. This has posed major concerns for employers in safety-sensitive workplaces where any mishandling of the heavy, intricate equipment due to drug or alcohol impairment can create serious, even lethal, risks.

In response to the forthcoming legalization, as well as to the lack of a definitive test for cannabis impairment, Carolyn Hewitt, a human resources manager in a Calgary energy management firm that employs 170,000 workers worldwide felt that there was no way that zero tolerance policies would work going forward.

“…zero tolerance [for cannabis within the workplace] is archaic and probably not going to fit with the new reality that we’re all being faced with.” Carolyn Hewitt, HR manager

Drug tests within workplaces are difficult to legally implement if the required jobs don’t fall under a “safety sensitive” banner, meaning the work involved on the job site is higher risk and more likely to cause lethal results if workers’ judgment and/or coordination are impaired by substances. The legalization of recreational and medical marijuana could have serious impacts on employers and employees in hazardous work spaces like those found in the oil and gas, mining, construction, and transportation industries – work wherein the sobriety of employees is critical to safety. As Hewitt states, “We have individuals in safety-sensitive roles, and they can kill themselves, or they can kill someone else.”

The drug industry has been encouraged by employers and medical professionals alike to continue to research and develop drug tests that can measure cognitive abilities in subjects suspected of being under the influence of marijuana in the workplace. It is hoped that motor control tests, as well as tests to determine field of vision, will eventually garner definitive results on par with other more standard impairment tests like urinalysis.

In late September of this year, approximately 70 employers, human resources staff, and union officials attended a Calgary conference designed to seek answers regarding the management of marijuana use in the workplace. While there, in lieu of an available, standard, definitive cannabis test, attendees were encouraged to try to build cases over time that provide evidence of employees arriving to work under the influence of cannabis, as well as to focus on management and communication so that all staff can move forward together to support a drug and alcohol free workplace.