Alison McMahon explains employee rights
Alison McMahon is part of the first wave of professionals from varied fields to find a home under the canopy of the cannabis industry. As director of the Human Resources Institute of Alberta and founder of Cannabis at Work, McMahon is consulting with companies who have employees using cannabis in the workplace, ensuring the concerns of employers are met and the rights of medical patients accommodated. We met up with McMahon to discuss the laws governing patient access in Canada, responsible use, and the prospect that legalization may actually help answer some of the questions about medical cannabis in the workplace.
You’ve spent the last year consulting with companies that have staff using medical marijuana. What are the most pressing questions policymakers need to address to ensure concerns employers have about cannabis use in the workplace are met?
I think that one of the key things – less policy as much as science – is that at the core of a lot of workplace issues is what does impairment mean? And if I’m holding a safe and sensitive position, and the employer is considering pulling me out of that position because they think I’m impaired, am I really? It depends on how I’m dosing, the strain, time of day. Knowing that we don’t have a definition of what impairment means, it’s important that employers and employees have a strong relationship.
You wrote, “In Canada, accommodation is a legal requirement, not one that can be ignored on a person’s biases.” Why does this principle not seem to apply to medical cannabis consumers in this country?
All medical cannabis patients have the right to be accommodated in the workplace around their medical cannabis use. You can’t simply fire somebody for holding medical cannabis, so that’s really important for patients to know. I think it’s also important for employers to understand that they need to accommodate. How do we accommodate people successfully? Accommodation can mean putting someone in a different job altogether, or it could mean giving them a place to vape. But the more experience we have with this, the better we will get at it.
Generally speaking, what are the rights of medical cannabis patients in the workplace?
You have the right to maintain your employment in the sense that you can’t just be fired. You have the right to have a conversation with your employer to understand how they can accommodate you. Really, you have the right to have a meaningful discussion about it. Patients should also know that they need to hold a prescription for all of this to be in their favour. If someone doesn’t hold a prescription and they’re getting their cannabis from an illegal source outside of the Licensed Producer system, then the employers in that case have no responsibility to accommodate them.
Is it daunting knowing that the full accommodation of patient rights would take a tectonic shift in the corporate culture of most companies?
I like to say that cannabis comes into the workplace like a wrecking ball. As employers and HR professionals, the policies that we’ve known to be true for a long time are no longer true around medical cannabis. So it is a huge shift, and it’s a shift we’re seeing across this industry in terms of this becoming more and more mainstream. Hopefully the stigma [around cannabis] is changing with time, but it is still alive and well.
How do you personally plan to push that earnest agenda forward?
I have a series of workplace education seminars that are delivered in person or online for an audience of HR professionals and employers’ unions. That gives an overview and strategies on medical marijuana in the workplace, starting with some basics like history, how we got here and some of the landmark cases that led to workplace regulations. What are current regulations? What’s a Licensed Producer? And then, what’s the workplace case law that exists to help us understand how to handle this in the workplace? Through the process of delivering that education, my hope is there’s an element of normalizing this whole conversation.
Are there cases where cannabis shouldn’t be consumed in the workplace?
If it’s a highly safety-sensitive position, I think we can all agree that somebody shouldn’t be operating a crane if they’re high. Like any prescription drug, I think workplaces need to start wrapping their head around [the notion] that this is next.
You’ve remarked, “Both employees and employers should realize legalization isn’t a free pass for people to be impaired at any time and place.” How important is it to emphasize that fact as we move toward reform?
Especially as we approach legalization and recreational use, it doesn’t just mean that you can get high anywhere, anytime, in the same way that you can’t be drunk anywhere, anytime. The complex and interesting thing about cannabis in the context of the workplace is that you have to accommodate it from a medical perspective, and then restrict it from a recreational perspective. There’s maybe a group of people who think that once it’s legal, it’s going to be light one up anywhere, anytime. But that’s not going to be the case, especially in the workplace.
Are you at all concerned that new regulation will ice the inroads made on the medical front in the workplace?
I hope not. In a way the recreational use is almost easier for workplaces because we’re used to restricting something like alcohol, and we can wrap our heads around that really quickly. So I think it’s almost less of a shift to consider how to manage that in the workplace, whereas allowing someone under some level of impairment in the workplace is much more of a challenge.
Here’s to Future Growth!
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