ALERT Learn More | NASP Certification Program: The Path to Success Has Many Routes. Choose Yours

What Occupational Safety Professionals Need to Know About the Legalization of Cannabis

By Sherri Carriere
Published: April 9, 2018 | Last updated: April 9, 2018 07:42:45
Key Takeaways

The biggest workplace challenge from legalization of cannabis is balancing workers' right to medical cannabis treatment while keeping workers safe.

Canada will soon follow suit other states and countries in legalizing and regulating the sale and consumption of cannabis.

The change in legislation was initially slated for July 2018 but recent discussions have pushed the proposed legislation back to September 2018 at the earliest. Still, it is not too early for safety professionals in Canada and other states with pending cannabis legislation to start planning for this major change.

Although this legislation is new and somewhat intimidating for Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) professionals, Canada is not on the vanguard of cannabis legislation. Since cannabis legalization has been in place for years in other countries, safety professionals have numerous examples and precedents to draw on when mapping out a strategy to handle this new issue.


The major concerns are with the effects of cannabis on workers. As with alcohol, the consumption of cannabis products can result in intoxication and impairment. For many workplaces, the symptomatology and potential consequences run from the relatively minor, like decreased productivity and a higher risk of injury, to the catastrophic.

Confounding Factors

Compounding this is the fact that it is difficult for employers to clearly identify a worker who has been impaired by cannabis consumption. This is due in large part to the fact that there are dozens of other factors that can account for an employee's impaired performance, including:

  • Regular alcohol consumption (even if sober at work)
  • Family or relationship stress
  • Fatigue
  • Mental stress
  • Trauma or shock
  • Medical or mental health conditions
  • Use of prescription drugs or over-the-counter medication

Additionally, some features of the workplace environment can also be culprits in a worker's impaired performance:

Obstacles to Self-Assessment

It's also important to understand that employees might not be able to recognize that their cognitive functions have been impaired by the consumption of cannabis, which could lead them to come to work or engage in difficult tasks in the mistaken belief that they are operating at full capacity and with a clear mind.

Exposure to THC (a chemical compound found in cannabis) has psychoactive effects and can depress the central nervous system. This can cause workers to be overconfident in their decision-making processes and their evaluation of risk.

Cannabis Impairment

Cannabis impairment is not comparable to alcohol intoxication. The level of cognitive impairment while on the drug is very difficult to predict, since there are countless factors to consider, including:

  • The specific strain or chemotype of the cannabis
  • The method of administration (smoking, vaporizing, edible products, sublingual applications, and so on)
  • The metabolism and tolerance level of the individual user
  • Medical conditions that could increase the level of impairment
  • Combination with alcohol or other drugs

Establishing Workplace Safety Guidelines

OHS professionals represent and support the employers they work for by developing, implementing, and managing policies and procedures.

One of the biggest challenge in drafting and enforcing these policies will be accommodating employees who are authorized to use cannabis as a medical treatment while restricting its recreational use.

Many workplaces employ a zero-tolerance approach to drug and alcohol use. Although it might be tempting to avoid tricky nuances by simply extending this blanket ban to cannabis consumption, human rights legislation prohibits discrimination toward any person with regard to employment or any term or condition of employment due to physical disability. And this extends to the treatment of those disabilities or management of its symptoms.


Meeting this challenge will require in-depth consideration and policy revisions that will conform to legislated requirements while still protecting the health and safety of all persons employed or otherwise engaged with the business (including contractors and suppliers).

Drafting a Comprehensive Drug and Alcohol Policy

Comprehensive employer policies usually state that employees are required to notify their employer of any accommodation they require.

Employers are advised to clearly define (in Canada) the bona fide occupational requirements (BFOR) and (in the United States) the bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ) for every position in their workplace.

Employers should further state which positions are safety sensitive or decision-critical and state which positions must comply with the employer's drug and alcohol policy and, where possible, the employer's cognitive function policy. Once legislation is enacted, it is weaknesses in both of these policies that will present the greatest complications.

One prudent and sensible move is enlisting a health professional to review the requirements for any position considered safety sensitive.


It is the primary authorizing healthcare physician's responsibility to determine whether the worker will be able to safely perform the duties of their position when using a prescribed amount of a therapeutic strain of cannabis.

It is the employer's responsibility to ensure the worker is monitored in the work area for potential indicators of impairment related to cannabis use.

It is the worker's responsibility to inform the employer if impairment related to cannabis use is suspected or anticipated.

Full Disclosure of Medical History

Demanding full disclosure of an employee's medical history and conditions is considered discriminatory in many jurisdictions. It is, however, acceptable to request such information prior to finalizing a hiring decision.

Employers have the right and moral obligation to seek out this information as a means of confirming and managing the safety of their operation.

Once all information is available, employers can assess their ability to accommodate the candidate on a case-by-case basis.

Cannabis-related requests for accommodation are typically accommodations for non-work-related conditions.

Goals of Accommodation for Cannabis

The employer's goals for accommodation of non-work-related conditions or injuries should include:

  1. No aggravation of the worker's primary medical injury or condition
  2. The prevention of any work-related injury or condition
  3. The prevention of undue hardship to the company caused by the worker's use of cannabis

Adapting to Forthcoming Legislation

As with all changes in legislation that affect workplace health and safety, continuous education and policy development or revision is the key to success.

Information and training made available through any jurisdictional organizations and agencies will provide the most current and applicable practices and recommendations for those specific areas.

By anticipating and adapting to the legislation before it is enacted, employers and safety professionals can find the right balance between protecting a worker's right to medical treatment while also ensuring the safety of all workers.


Share This Article

  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter

Written by Sherri Carriere

Profile Picture of Sherri Carriere

Sherri Carriere has been assisting organizations in conducting successful business operations through the identification and management of risk exposures to ensure regulatory compliance for over 22 years.

Related Articles

Go back to top