High time to review workplace policies, says drug tester

In a few months, cannabis will be legal to purchase, and workplaces are grappling with how to deal with situations where workers may be high on the job.

Employers can set guidelines on whether smoking pot is allowed on company premises

As marijuana legalization looms in Canada, large and small companies are asking for guidance from the provincial and federal governments on how they should balance employee privacy with safety in the workplace. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

In a few months, cannabis will be legal to purchase, and workplaces are grappling with how to deal with situations where workers may be high on the job.

Wayne St. John, with Cann Amm, a firm that performs drug and alcohol testing in northern Ontario, told CBC's Up North that there's a dire need for more information around the workplace.

"Right now, the province and federal governments have focused on the sale and distribution of cannabis and roadside testing," St. John said. "But [they've] overlooked workplace concerns."

But St. John said the government's decision to legalize marijuana shouldn't affect whether the workplace requires drug testing or not.

"If there's a safety-sensitive aspect to your workspace, you continue on with testing," he said. "If you're in a position where you don't have a safety-sensitive aspect, then legalization shouldn't lead to that."

"It should lead to awareness programs and other approaches, but not testing," he said.

Tests can't detect buzzed employees

St. John said even if a company has a drug-testing policy in place, the tests still won't determine if an employee is high while on the job.

"We don't test for impairment," he said. "We test for a level of substance in an individual's system that leads them to be a safety risk. It's a safety risk mitigation tool." 

St. John said his company fields calls from workplaces looking for clarity on how to approach the consumption of cannabis, especially as it relates to medically-issued marijuana.

"We get calls asking if employees will be allowed to smoke at work because the province has said it will be allowed in areas where tobacco is allowed," St. John said.

"But the Ontario government says you can't consume it in a public workplace," he said. "There's already precedent being set where you can and cannot consume."

"Individual workplaces have that ability themselves to say you can not consume cannabis on company premises, similar to alcohol."

Some responsibility rests on the worker

As for medicinal marijuana, St. John says an employer has the duty to accommodate medical conditions, but that comes with some expectations for the employee.

"The individual who claims 'well, marijuana helps me' is different than going through the steps of having a physician authorizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes."

Overall, St. John said, a solid workplace drug policy is one that stresses communication between workers and their employers.

"It's not about impairment, it's about safety," he said.

"It's not a witch hunt. [Drug testing] is out there to decrease the potential for workplace incidents, and it's just one small piece of an overall safety program."