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Five tips for employers creating a marijuana policy at work

Growing flowers of cannabis intended for the medical marijuana market are shown at OrganiGram in Moncton, N.B., on April 14, 2016. Marijuana producers say the federal government's proposed legal-pot regime needs more details to clarify issues like permissible advertising and distribution. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ron Ward

On July 1, 2018, Canadians will enter a brave new world as the Liberal government legalizes recreational marijuana.

The new legislation is simple to understand in terms of the rights of individuals; however, it gets a lot more complicated when it comes to how marijuana should be used, tolerated or forbidden at work.

To help clear the air, here are five tips for setting up a workplace marijuana policy that will help ensure a smooth transition into full legalization in the year to come.

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1. Understand what is legal

Thanks to rapidly changing legislation, news trickling across the border from the United States, and stigmas surrounding marijuana as a harmful and illicit drug, it can be confusing to navigate the current legal landscape. Employers should start by understanding what is legal right now, and what will change if Parliament passes Bill C-45 and C-46, which would implement the changes.

As of this writing, prescribed medical marijuana is legal in Canada and regulated by the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulation (ACMPR). Apollo Apollo Applied Research and Cannabis Clinics explains that with this framework, individuals that have a medical need and the authorization of their health-care practitioner can access cannabis in three ways: 1) registering to grow their own medical marijuana, 2) designating a registered grower, or 3) buying from a Health Canada-approved licensed producer. In each case, the production and distribution of medical marijuana is strictly regulated and meant to ensure that Canadians with serious health issues can access this form of treatment. Existing access to medical marijuana will remain unchanged under the new legislation.

Recreational marijuana is illegal in all Canadian provinces and territories, as are dispensaries – illegal retail marijuana storefronts that operate under the guise of Health Canada-approved licensed producers.

The proposed 2018 legislation will allow adults 18 and over to possess up to 30 grams of dry or fresh cannabis, share up to 30 grams of dried cannabis with other adults, and buy dry cannabis or cannabis oil from a provincially regulated retailer. Adults can also grow up to four plants per residence for personal use. The bills include strict guidelines around selling to minors and driving while impaired. Individual provinces, territories and municipalities will be able to set higher minimum ages and individual laws regarding distribution and retail sales rules.

2. Clarify your policy on recreational marijuana

Recreational marijuana at work should be treated like any other controlled substance, such as alcohol. Employers are responsible for the safety of all employees – they have the right to enforce a zero-tolerance policy against intoxication or impairment in the workplace.

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Sharing a clear drug-and-alcohol policy with all employees will help to establish shared guidelines around what is acceptable, the consequences of non-compliance, and who to speak with for additional information or questions.

Such a policy should reiterate that illicit drugs, including recreational marijuana, are prohibited from the office until the federal government's new legislation is passed. Employers can outline disciplinary actions and grounds for termination in cases where employees possess or consume these drugs at work. The consequences of smoking indoors, unsafe equipment handling, or any kind of action that makes other employees feel unsafe or uncomfortable should be also outlined in the policy.

Employers should include a specific section on medical marijuana outlining which forms of medical proof will be required and what accommodation is available. The policy can include references to Health Canada's ACMPR guidelines.

3. Accommodate medical users

Employers are bound by the duty to accommodate in the Human Rights Code. By law, this means patients with medical marijuana prescriptions must be accommodated to the point of undue hardship, just like any other medical need or disability. This could mean allowing patients adequate breaks to step outside and vaporize their medicine, or a change in their duties and responsibilities to accommodate their medical condition.

The most important takeaway for employers is that when employees present a prescription for medical marijuana, they have the same rights as employees using any other doctor-prescribed medication, and deserve the same treatment.

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4. Cover medical marijuana on your group benefits plan

Given changing attitudes toward medical marijuana and growing user demand, forward-thinking employers are taking action to include medical marijuana coverage in their benefits plan.

Health spending accounts (HSAs) are currently the favoured option for providing group benefits coverage of medical marijuana, since cannabis cannot be covered under traditional drug plans. HSAs consist of a predetermined amount of money provided to cover employees' medical and dental expenses. With HSAs, employers can control health-care costs, while enabling employees to choose how and where to spend their health-care dollars.

Large Canadian companies such as Shoppers Drug Mart and Loblaws are already covering medical pot for their employees, with coverage of up to $1,500 per year to treat certain medical conditions. As companies look for ways to attract and retain top talent, modern group benefits plans, including medical marijuana coverage, will become increasingly popular.

5. Have an open and honest dialogue with your employees

Before signing up for a medical marijuana HSA, or holding an emergency drug policy meeting, take a step back to assess what the impact of marijuana in the workplace will mean for your particular organization. Different industries, demographics, and workplace cultures will face different challenges and levels of acceptance.

Until now, employers have largely been able to avoid or ignore the issue of marijuana at work. But with legalization looming, it is time to break the taboo and engage in candid conversations. By creating a culture of openness, trust and honesty, you can help employees feel more comfortable with their needs, while encouraging respect for your policy choices.

Now more than ever, employers and employees must know how to discuss and deal with marijuana at work. The best thing you can do to protect your business and your people is to stay informed, be prepared for questions that may come up, and understand the implications of marijuana – both medical and recreational – on your current human resources policies and group benefits plans. Finally, ensure you consult legal counsel when creating or amending any policies.

Elijah Moore is the co-founder of Collage.co, a free HR and benefits platform that makes it easy for Canadian businesses to manage their people.

The 2017 Globe and Mail Small Business Summit is a one-day conference of insightful sessions, proven business growth strategies and innovative ideas from the country's brightest business leaders. Full details at globesummits.ca.

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