“The easiest way to understand this scenario is to compare cannabis to alcohol. Alcohol has always been legal to consume, but it is still illegal to be intoxicated by alcohol in the workplace or to enter the workplace while under the influence of alcohol. The same is now true of cannabis.

“While you may be permitted by law to consume it in your own private time and space, you may not do so in the workplace, nor may you enter the workplace while still under its influence,” explains Rhys Evans, Managing Director at ALCO-Safe, experts in drug and alcohol testing solutions.

Comprehensive policies are key

Comprehensive substance abuse policies need to be put into place in line with legislation and in compliance with the OHS Act. It is important for policies to explicitly state that it is against company regulations and the law for a person to enter the workplace under the influence of intoxicating substances, including alcohol and cannabis. It also needs to be defined that persons may not consume these intoxicating substances while in the workplace, as well as the consequences should these policies not be adhered to.

Involving unions, shop stewards and employee representatives from the beginning is advised to ensure policies are fair and resistance is minimised. It is also important to use reputable suppliers of equipment that will assist with policy development, training and procedures. However, while a comprehensive policy is a good first step, in isolation it is not sufficient. It is also critical to include WHY these policies are in place – for safety, not to punish employees.

Education is critical

Education is an integral component of any substance abuse policy. Employees need to understand the rules of the workplace, the consequences for non-compliance with policy, and importantly the risks and real dangers of working under the influence of intoxicating substances. This includes legal drugs, even prescription medication, which may have a detrimental effect on the ability of an individual to safely and effectively perform their job.

“Many people underestimate the danger of working under the influence, particularly in hazardous environments like mining and manufacturing or jobs that involve transport and logistics. At least 20% and potentially even up to 40% of accidents in the workplace may be related to substance abuse, but the problem extends beyond the workplace,” says Evans.

Substance abuse is implicated in or responsible for 60% of fatal accidents, 30% of domestic accidents and 50% of murders. While many people believe that marijuana use is not that dangerous, THC has been shown to impair driving performance significantly for up to two hours following use, and residual effects have been reported up to 24 hours after use.

Testing policies should be updated

One aspect that needs to be updated in light of the law is the actual testing procedure. Typically a urine test has been used to detect cannabis usage. This tests for the metabolite of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, which may show up in the urine a number of days after the drug was last used. The test can determine that the drug was used, but not that the person is currently under its influence, since the body continues to excrete the metabolite after the influence has worn off.

“This means that for workplace purposes the urine test is no longer recommended. Saliva tests are a more effective option, since they test for the primary THC compound itself and therefore have much shorter detection windows. When the aim is to confirm that an employee is currently under the influence of cannabis, the saliva test is a better option and is more in line with current legislation,” says Evans.

It’s about safety, not punishment

“At the end of the day it is important that workers understand that drug testing policies are not about punishing people or trying to get them fired. The education component is absolutely critical so that employees understand that the most important factor is the safety and wellbeing of themselves and their colleagues. This is key to clearing up misconceptions and improving compliance with policies,” Evans concludes.

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