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Unanswered questions plague cannabis use

Bill Howatt Bill Howatt
Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, Organizational Performance

This op-ed was originally published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald on November 20, 2018.

A little more than a month since the Cannabis Act came into force, some organizations are moving from the question of how prepared they were for the new legislation to what impact legalization of cannabis will have on workforce productivity.

Gleaned from several informational conversations with leaders, their general sentiment about cannabis can be summarized in one sentence: “There’s nothing to worry about; it will be just like alcohol.”

This statement is somewhat frightening, considering the social, health and financial impact of drinking alcohol, and the percentage of employees who have the equivalent of 15 or more drinks per week.

My response is, “OK, I hear you. But I have one question regarding legalization of recreational cannabis and the growing number of employees using it for medical purposes: Will cannabis have a positive or negative impact on workforce productivity?”

Their answer is often something like, “I have a hunch, but I can’t be sure.”

This is where we agree. We don’t have the facts or research to form a conclusion. More research is needed to answer questions such as: Do employers’ policies and training curb risk of employees coming to work impaired? Are cannabis users (medical and recreational) different than non-users with respect to attendance, discretionary effort and presenteeism?

  • Fifteen per cent of the population has used cannabis within the past three months, based on the National Cannabis Survey, second quarter 2018.
  • Cannabis is a complicated drug with 483 unique compounds, and researchers are just learning about how it works on the body. The two most talked-about chemicals in the plant are cannabinoids (CBDs) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
  • A joint today may not be the same as one in the 1980s, when THC levels were mostly between eight and 12 per cent.
  • Today there are over 700 strains of cannabis with different combinations of THC, the psychoactive part of the drug, and CBD, the healing part. Imagine trying to regulate over 700 types of opiates.
  • Cannabis use is undetectable by smell, as it can be digested as an oil or other edible. A person could be using it in the office by slipping drops of cannabis oil into their tea.
  • Cannabis impairment is not always easily detected. If it’s true that on any given day somewhere around 10 per cent of daily or weekly users of cannabis use the drug one hour before work, that suggests that thousands of employees are at risk of entering the workplace impaired each day — many of whom are not being detected. Detection becomes even harder with remote workers.
  • People smoking cannabis are often more confident in their ability to perform than when their motor skills and sensory abilities are not impaired. As an example, one in seven cannabis users reported driving a motor vehicle within two hours of using.
  • The impairment window and what defines impairment are not fully understood nor agreed upon.
  • Cannabis misuse leads to cannabis substance use disorder.
  • Medical cannabis research is progressing and will be forthcoming with respect to its therapeutic benefit for different chronic diseases and mental health.

Cannabis is a complicated drug, and humans are complicated; everyone has a different set of wants and needs.

With the increase in mental health issues and workplace disability claims, it appears that many employees are already struggling to cope with work, financial and social stress. We don’t know what impact cannabis will have on the workplace.

We also don’t have workforce productivity impact data yet, like The Conference Board of Canada’s research on the cost of smoking. It found that each smoker cost their employer $4,256 in 2012 — more than $3,800 in lost productivity due to unsanctioned smoking breaks and more than $400 in lost productivity due to absenteeism.

However, it would be wrong to assume that cannabis use will be all negative. We don’t know, for instance, whether cannabis treatment for employees whose employers provide a health spending account will help them better manage chronic disease and pain.

Employers will benefit from research that uncovers both positive and negative benefits of cannabis use on workforce productivity, so they can make informed, evidence-based decisions. The Conference Board of Canada will continue to work with organizations across Canada to understand their challenges and inform decision-making around substance use policies and practices. In response to employers’ top concerns, we are undertaking research to address the impact of legalization on: the prevalence of medical and recreational cannabis use; testing practices; mental health; health and safety; and employee engagement.

The cannabis experiment has been running now for more than 30 days. It will be interesting and beneficial for organization leaders to have access to evidence-based facts rather than opinions. If there are any unintended consequences of what changed on Oct. 17, it will take time and research to discover what they are and their magnitude.

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