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Employers' Legal Marijuana Policies Should Support, Not Punish Workers

Zero tolerance never makes sense, and no employer has the right to police off-duty conduct.
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What workers do on the job is their employer's business, obviously, but what they do on their own time is, for the most part, no one's business but their own and their family's.

As Canada eases its way into the world of legalized cannabis, this must be the underlying principle as how employers and labour deal with marijuana use among workers, on the job or off.

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What's been missing from the discussion, and is too often missing in our workplaces generally, is any discussion of why some workers turn to drugs or alcohol in the first place.

Don't get me wrong, there are many jobs where safety is a primary concern, and there is a case to be made for tougher rules in these situations. I think we all get that. We need to start, however, with respecting the rights of workers to spend their leisure time as they choose, and work from there.

To be fair, most of this is new to many of us. We have never had to deal with the issue of legal cannabis before, or what impact that might have on the workplace and employer-employee relations.

Pot in the workplace is not really a new thing.

Still, in many ways, little has actually changed.

There were people using cannabis long before it was legalized, and so the potential of workers showing up to work after having consumed the product always existed. As well, many have already been using marijuana for medical purposes — which brings with it the benefit of alleviating the need for harder medications.

In short, pot in the workplace is not really a new thing.

The thing that seems to be worrying some employers is the idea that pot use will increase with legalization, and that makes me worry that some companies might opt for restrictive rules as a cautionary measure — fully expecting unions and the courts to curtail the new rules over time.

I find that alarming.

Blanket bans on any cannabis use by employees, as we have seen already announced at some workplaces, is simply going too far. There is even talk of bringing in random drug testing — something that has largely failed to get past the courts or labour arbitration hearings.

Zero tolerance never makes sense, and no employer has the right to police off-duty conduct.

Just to be clear, no one has a problem with bans on pot use, or any other intoxicant, on the job — particularly for those in jobs where safety is an issue. It seems obvious to me that there are some basic and reasonable rules for cannabis, as far as your job goes: don't take it to work, don't use it to work and don't use it so soon before work that it'll affect your work.

In that way, it's really no different than alcohol. We already shouldn't be bringing alcohol to work, consume it at work or show up under the influence. The same basic rules would apply.

In other words, for most workers the issue isn't whether they are using cannabis or any other substance for that matter, but how they are using it.

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What is missing however is a much-needed discussion about impairment, why some workers are turning to substances such as cannabis, and the underlying causes of substance abuse among some in the workplace.

Even when marijuana was illegal, people were using it. Their use, however, had to be kept hidden from co-workers and their employer due in no small part to its illegality. If workers, for instance, were stressed or self-medicating other conditions through illegal drug use, the illegality of the act might have kept them from seeking help. I'm hoping that will change with legalization.

Unions, Unifor included, have processes and often structures in place to help workers dealing with substance abuse. At Unifor, for instance, we have the Employee and Family Assistance Program, which helps bargaining units develop the best practices for their members dealing with substance abuse.

For most people and most workplaces, the decriminalization of cannabis will make no difference to their daily working lives. For those where cannabis has already been an issue, decriminalization could help remove a barrier to addressing it. To do that, we need workplace policies that are supportive, not punitive.

My fear, however, is that we will get caught up in disputes over random testing and how workers spend their leisure time, rather than the important issue of how helping those in our workplaces who need help with substance abuse.

Any such outcome would truly be a tragedy.

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