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Responding to Medical Marijuana in the Workplace

Around 40,000 Canadians in the workforce use medical marijuana. And with the legalization of recreational marijuana expected to occur in spring of 2017, this number will likely increase. When Colorado relaxed its marijuana laws in 2009, it saw an “explosion” of medical marijuana users, increasing from 4,800 in 2008 to over 40,000 by the end of 2009 (Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, 2014, p. 4). It is not unreasonable to expect a similar “explosion” in Canada following legalization, and this prospect should be a cause for concern for people working in safety-sensitive occupations.

Medical marijuana is used to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, chronic pain, and epileptic seizures. Although it can be an effective treatment, marijuana can also have an array of harmful side effects. Even short-term use of marijuana can impair muscle coordination, reaction time, alertness, and other cognitive abilities that safety-sensitive workers need to be safe and productive at work. In short, the use of this drug at the workplace has the potential to create unsafe situations, resulting in a potential upswing in workplace accidents and fatalities.

What Does This Mean for Employers?

It is important to note that doctors do not consider workplace safety when writing prescriptions. The onus is always on the employer to ensure that their employees are not impaired to the point of endangering themselves or their co-workers. However, it is also important to note that legal use of medical marijuana does not translate to the right to be impaired while at work. Safety concerns trump the right of the individual to use medication at the workplace.

As an employer you have a duty to make accommodations for your employee’s medical marijuana use, but only insofar as these accommodations do not endanger safety or impose an undue hardship on you as an employer (what constitutes an “undue hardship” can sometimes be tricky to determine). One example of an accommodation might be shifting the employee to a less safety-sensitive position.

As you take steps to protect your workplace against accidents and unsafe situations, it is also important to protect yourself from legal difficulties down the road so you can successfully navigate human rights concerns and avoid wrongful dismissal suits. Below are a few tips on how to walk that narrow line between safety and human rights correctly.

Practical Tips for Maintaining a Drug-Free Workplace

  • Have a comprehensive, unambiguous drug and alcohol policy that covers both prescription and nonprescription drugs.
  • Do not make assumptions about an employee’s suspected drug use. Make decisions based on evidence.
  • Get the full picture. You have the right to request additional relevant information from a medical professional to make an informed decision.
  • When discussing your concerns about an employee’s suspected drug use, ensure your conduct is kind, friendly, and accommodating, rather than accusatory or antagonistic.
  • Create a paper trail: ensure that all discussions regarding the employee’s medication use/medical condition are documented. Follow up any in-person meetings or phone calls with an email to recap the conversation.
  • Always follow the proper procedure.

These tips should help you strike a balance between preserving the dignity and rights of your workers and maintaining a safe, drug-free workplace. Although medical marijuana can be a serious cause for concern at work, a few simple cautionary measures are all you need to protect yourself and your workplace.


Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (2014, August). The legalization of marijuana in Colorado: The impact. Vol 2 (August 2014).