CSA standard for cannabis impairment coming next year

Substance needs to be addressed separately from alcohol due its effect on the brain

The CSA Group is currently working on a new standard to address cannabis impairment in the workplace, which is scheduled to be released spring 2020, attendees heard at the Partners in Prevention Health and Safety Conference and Trade Show in Mississauga, Ont. on April 30.

Just over six months have passed since cannabis has been legalized in Canada, and there remains limited regulatory guidance or legislative directives for employers and safety professionals to manage the effects of the substance in the workplace, especially in safety sensitive positions. The standard will aim to bridge this knowledge gap.

“Despite the fact that legalization has come and gone, there hasn’t been a lot of regulatory response to this,” said Dan Demers, senior manager of strategic business development at CannAmm in North Bay, Ont. “There are groups coming together to help guide what you can do to be prudent about these changes.”

Andrea Holbeche, project manager at the CSA Group, said the new standard is in the development phase and will be informed by a research report the group created called Workplace Policies on Substance Use: Implications for Canada, as well as data collected from a workshop the group held last October. Additionally, once the initial version of the standard is released likely in fall/winter 2019, stakeholders will be able to provide feedback.

The research report revealed that many workplaces lack a standalone cannabis or drug-impairment policy because drug impairment is often lumped in with broader, more general substance use policies.

Key components in workplace drug policies should include objectives and scope, prevention mechanisms, observation and investigation parameters, support, return to work, non-compliance, review and evaluation and legal requirements, said Holbeche.

Cannabis needs to be addressed in a policy separate from alcohol due to the way the substance affects the brain.

Unlike alcohol, once the initial feeling of intoxication dissipates, impairment can last up to 28 days, said Demers. Cannabis has 100 known phytocannabinoids (such as THC and CBD), but around 70 of those are psychoactive, causing the user to feel high. This impairment can include slower reaction times, which is problematic for workers in safety-sensitive positions because they can injure themselves and others.

Demers says that the three R’s are impacted negatively by cannabis use: reasoning, reaction and recall. While cannabis is legal for adults in Canada, some workplace policies might prohibit its use on an employee’s personal time — such as for pilots — since impairment lingers.

“If you smoke cannabis, it’ll affect you very quickly, a few seconds, peak in 10 minutes, last for four to six hours. If you eat the same amount of cannabis, the onset could be upwards of 60 to 90 minutes and then you’re going to feel high for about 10 to 12 hours,” he said. “This is the period of time intoxication due to cannabis is happening and you could actually sense it. But it’s not the total time of impairment.”

Ray Pleasance, corporate director of OHS at Black & McDonald in Toronto, said everybody in the workplace should be aware of their role and responsibility to keep workers safe from impairment, including when someone consumes cannabis for medical purposes. This might mean refusing to work safety-sensitive roles if consuming medical marijuana and opting for a non-safety sensitive role.

“Medical cannabis is absolutely no different (from recreational cannabis). In terms of consumption, the unknowns and the lingering effects, they are precisely the same. The medical cannabis is nothing special; it’s on prescription. It’s a legal authorization to consume the natural product through a medical mechanism,” said Demers.

But when it comes to respecting the privacy of workers and not violating human rights laws with workplace drug policies, there ultimately needs to be a balance with these and maintaining a safe workplace. The upcoming CSA standard would help guide employers on the best practices of navigating the complex and developing area of legal cannabis and impairment.

“Make sure your supervisors and managers have the tools to identify signs and symptoms of risk of impairment and have the ability to execute your policy fairly consistently,” said Demers.

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