Legalization of marijuana presents challenges for situations that normally include alcohol

The office party — time to let loose, have a drink — and toke up?

We’ve all heard stories of the office holiday parties where people feel they can relax and have a few drinks with co-workers — and maybe a few who have a little too much. And then there are the two-martini business lunches and like with colleagues or clients where a drink or three is consumed over discussions of business opportunities.

But as we approach the legalization of marijuana in Canada, will we see co-workers passing around a joint at the office party, or a business deal consummated over a few puffs of weed?

Well, maybe not quite yet. Marijuana will be legal soon in Canada — though it’s a bit iffy as to when legal distribution will actually start — and employers are struggling with how they should treat it. The obvious default for most is that it will be treated much like alcohol when it comes its presence in the workplace and employee intoxications — zero tolerance in most cases. Employees for the most part will likely not be allowed to possess marijuana at all on the employer’s premises and employees who report to work while under the influence of it will not be allowed to work.

One of the things that employers will have to address is how impairment is determined. With alcohol, the common tests involving blood, urine, or breathalyzer can show impairment. However, the common tests for marijuana mostly show past use and can’t determine current impairment — marijuana can stay in the system long after impairment wears off.

Testing technology will continue to advance and perhaps in the near future practical, affordable testing will be able to determine marijuana impairment. But until then, employers will have to look at ways to address marijuana use by employees.

But will also be interesting to see what will happen with regards to office parties and occasions where alcohol is normally consumed. Alcohol consumption is often considered acceptable at certain events like this while prohibited during work hours and during regular work duties. Will such events see marijuana making appearances? Can employers ban marijuana at events where alcohol is permitted, even though both will be equally legal?

Some attention has been brought to this issue recently when The Canadian Press obtained a draft policy from the Manitoba civil service commission intended to take effect when marijuana becomes legal. The draft policy states that alcohol is acceptable at some work functions, but marijuana will not be. In addition, employees will be allowed to buy alcohol during breaks and store unopened containers at work until they can take it home, but not so for marijuana unless it is medically prescribed.

One big difference between alcohol and marijuana is that the latter is quite often smoked as a way of consumption. This makes differentiation pretty easy for employers, as smoking is generally banned in all workplaces and other buildings where events might take place. This is particularly notable for marijuana, which can have less chemicals in the smoke but its odour is much more powerful than cigarettes and can affect more people in a larger area. So just a smoking ban alone would help control marijuana use at work events.

However, marijuana can be consumed in other ways and employee could bring vaping equipment or edibles to office parties, once such items become legally distributed. If that happens, what are employers to do? Should they do anything if it’s a party with alcohol? Some would argue that marijuana is no more harmful or intoxicating — or less so — than alcohol, it shouldn’t be a problem. Others could say studies haven’t proven that absolutely.

Should marijuana be allowed at work events where alcohol is permitted? It might just be easier to ban all intoxicants from such events, but that comes with its own risks of employee discontent and disengagement — especially if it’s an established and expected practice. It’s not an easy issue to determine, and one more thing employers have to struggle with as marijuana becomes legalized in Canada.

Posted on on June 4, 2018 by Jeffrey R. Smith.