This article analyses a recent report on Canadian workplace substance use policies and its implications in the light of the imminent legalisation of cannabis in Canada.

By: Loretta Bouwmeester, Wilson Chan

Firm: Mathews Dinsdale

Canada continues to move towards the legalisation and regulation of cannabis. In response to this reality, on 20 April 2018, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (‘CCSA’) released its study, A Review of Workplace Substance Use Policies in Canada: Strengths, Gaps and Key Considerations, on workplace policies regarding substance use. The study is the first of its kind and examines how Canadian organisations approach substance use that affects the workplace. The specific objectives of CCSA’s study were:

  • to review, analyse and provide a general overview of the state of workplace policies on substance use in Canada, their common components, unique elements and gaps;
  • to identify lessons learned and best practices in the development and implementation of workplace substance use policies from the experiences of safety-sensitive organisations;
  • to determine which policy areas require more guidance, tools and resources, and from this information make recommendations to help improve policy development and employer responses to substance use affecting the workplace.

Data was collected through a comprehensive examination of workplace and policy-related literature, an environmental scan of existing substance use policies in various Canadian organisations, a national survey of select safety-sensitive industries, and key informant interviews of personnel from safety-sensitive industries. The Report sets out the following key findings.

Lack of substance use policies

Not enough organisations have comprehensive, well-developed substance use policies. This can put the organisation at risk for various issues, such as lost productivity, increased absenteeism, reduced employee morale and accountability, liability problems and safety issues.

Difficulties balancing discipline and support

For organisations surveyed that do have policies, there was an imbalance between disciplinary measures and supportive measures (what we call the ‘hammer vs. help’ challenge):

  • Most policies addressed disciplinary measures, such as procedures for non-compliance with the policy and procedures for immediate termination or suspension.
  • Supportive measures, such as treatment options, support services, accommodation options, education and prevention, were absent or addressed to a much lesser extent.
  • Substance use policies that balance employer and employee needs benefit employees, employers, and the public by setting clear guidelines and expectations that can help to establish a workplace culture that reduces risks, costs and stigma.

Inadequate policies may create legal risks

Insufficiently developed policies can give organisations the false belief that they are operating with a functional and appropriate workplace policy. These organisations could face difficulties if their policy is ever challenged, which may result in legal consequences or negatively impact the workplace culture. Being proactive and performing reviews and evaluations of policies is important to ensure they are effective and up to date, particularly in a changing legal environment. Ineffective policies can put both employees and employers at risk.

Widespread employer concern

The vast majority, 84% of employers surveyed, were either very concerned or somewhat concerned about workplace safety with impending cannabis legalisation. A well-implemented comprehensive substance use policy is one of the best available tools employers have to address substance use in or affecting the workplace.

Substance use has become a growing concern among employers, employees, industry associations, unions, health professionals and insurance companies. The negative consequences of such use can be serious and wide-ranging. Of primary concern is the potential negative impact on the health and safety of the affected employee, their families, and co-workers, and for certain industries, additional risks to the public and the environment. Beyond these concerns, substance use can also affect the workplace in numerous other ways, contributing to increased costs, absenteeism, turnover, need for disciplinary action, increased expenditure of organizational resources, as well as lowering productivity and workplace morale.

Employers that review this Report can better understand the implications of the impending changes, of insufficiently developed substance use policies, and more importantly, how to improve them. We encourage you to review this Report, its recommendations and best practices, and to assess and update your policies accordingly so that your workplace is ready when cannabis is legalised later this year.

The Report, A Review of Workplace Substance Use Policies in Canada: Strengths, Gaps and Key Considerations, can be found here. A summary of the Report can also be found on the CCSA website at