Are You Allowed to Take Cannabis at Work if You’re a Legal Patient?

Jessica McKeil January 14, 2021 0 comments

Before medical cannabis was as widely legalized as it is today, cannabis at work was a clear no-no.

It used to be that employee caught smoking up before a long shift, or worse, consuming while on the job faced severe repercussions, perhaps even dismissal. Legalizing medical cannabis in Canada, and parts of the U.S., is a win for patients, but complicates matters for employers. Should patients with chronic medical conditions have access to their legally prescribed medicine, even on the job?

Legalities aside, employees may not always want their medical cannabis prescription to be office-wide knowledge. It’s not as if employees proudly display their prescription pill bottles on their desk, and the same is true for cannabis at work. What’s the best way for patients to get the relief they need throughout the day without letting the whole team know? Basically, medical cannabis at work must be long-lasting and discrete.

Here we address the legal protections available to patients on both sides of the border, plus the best methods for discrete relief while on the job.

cannabis at work represented by hands mulling over joint at laptop

Are You Legally Allowed to Use Medical Cannabis at Work?

According to the Government of Canada, “Someone who is impaired may have difficulty completing their work tasks safely and may put themselves, their coworkers and the public in danger.” The government includes alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs, and medical cannabis as possible reasons for impairment.

What does this mean for Canadians who legally use medical cannabis? Canadians enjoy the protections of the Canadian Human Rights Act, which means under many circumstances, employees are allowed to use cannabis, even during working hours.

The government makes it clear, “employers have the obligation to accommodate to the point of undue hardship an employee who has identified as having a disease, injury or disability, including substance dependence and medical authorizations to use cannabis for medical purposes.” But, there are a few important caveats here.

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It’s the duty of the employee to notify their employer about any safety issues, which may include their intoxication following a dose of medical cannabis. It may also mean an employee requires job-reassignment, should they perform a job where impairment puts either themselves or others at risk. A heavy equipment operator or an air traffic controller are two primary examples of where it may not be possible.

Medical Cannabis in Canada

Patients in Canada should speak with their prescribing physician and employer about medical cannabis to better understand any implications for their position.

Medical Cannabis in the United States

In the U.S., the picture is much more complicated. Patient protections (or risks) largely depend on the state. Those living in states with no legal medical cannabis program may risk discipline, dismissal, or even criminal charges should they use medical cannabis during working hours. But, even in legal states, medical cannabis patients tend to have far fewer protections.

For example, Colorado allows for both medical and recreational cannabis, but employers can still refuse to allow their employees access. That’s even outside working hours. As per a guide for employers published by the Denver Chamber of Commerce, businesses, “may continue to enforce drug policies and prohibit their employees from using or being impaired by marijuana at work,” — medical card or not.

With that said, many states have created systems to protect employees who are legal, medical cannabis cardholders. NORML compiled a list of the pro-active states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia. Regulations and protections vary widely, so patients are advised to explore their state’s specific rules before lighting up.

How To Discuss Medical Cannabis With Employers

If you live in an area where medical cannabis is legal and you hold a legitimate prescription, what is the best way to approach your employer about cannabis?

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First, start with the current regulations. Ask the human resources department (or your manager) for the company’s drug policies. Should medical cannabis not already be addressed within these policies, the second step is to consider your specific circumstances.

Does your company receive federal grant money (applicable in the US only)? In America, companies receiving federal grant money cannot allow medical cannabis at work. Do you work in law enforcement, the military, a prison, or public transportation? Do you hold a position where intoxication could risk the safety of yourself or others? In these cases, the risks are too great for the employer, even if they hire employees who need relief.

Should you work in a low-risk position (at a privately funded company), you may want to bring the topic up with the human resources department. Highlight the research on your specific condition and the relief you experience. It may also help to speak with your prescribing physician first to better understand the most effective talking points.

What are Best Ways to Get Long Lasting and Discreet Relief at Work?

For those that have legal protections for their plant-based medicine, which format provides the longest-lasting relief while at work? Not everyone has the ability, or the right, to light up a big one on their coffee break. Nor is this usually advisable if you are at all worried about maintaining social norms.

Smoking and vaping medical cannabis may be the preferred recreational methods of consumption, but they are not great for at-work-medicine. Their effects are short-lasting, and anything but discreet.

Edibles offer the longest-lasting relief for chronic conditions. Gummies, chocolates, homemade candies, or homemade baked goods can deliver big doses in a quick and delicious format. Cannabis edibles may take a long time to kick in but will provide upwards of eight hours of long-lasting relief. Edibles are also one of the most discreet routes of administration.

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For anyone experimenting with edibles for the first time, do not experiment right before work. As many patients will tell you, if you are consuming edibles for the first time or switching to a new kind, it’s very easy to overdo it. Work out an appropriate and functional dose first, then work it into your professional life.

Capsules, cannabis oils, tinctures, and other oral products are all excellent substitutes for edibles. These options are discreet, portable, and provide relief for several hours. Although not as long-lasting as an edible, they are still worthy options.

cannabis at work represented by white man in safety gear on ipad in industrial job

Medical Cannabis at Work – Not Straightforward

What is the best way to discuss cannabis at work with your employer? In the U.S. especially, the variables are many. Unlike Canada, not all patients have protections for their medicine. Do your own research first. After that, know the risks, and read the room before asking to dose at work.

If your employer is allowing for medical cannabis at work, choose discreet but long-lasting options like edibles, capsules, and oils. These are ideal for effectively soothing your symptoms over an eight-hour shift, but not letting the entire office know.

Given the trajectory of medical cannabis, it’s likely that more and more employers will open up to the idea of cannabis at work. Still, it will always require a careful balance between the rights of the patient, and the risks to others.

Author avatar

Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a freelance writer focused on the medical marijuana industry, from production methods to medicinal applications. She is lucky enough to live in beautiful British Columbia, Canada where the cannabis industry is exploding. When not writing, she spends much of her time exploring in the coastal forests.

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