Canadian Contractor

John Bleasby   

Job-related pain (Part One): Weed on the work site

Canadian Contractor

What happens when medical marijuana is prescribed for chronic pain?

This week, I start a new series about body stress and strain in construction, how pain is being treated by medication and the associated risks, and preventive measures available to workers and employers.

You suffer from chronic back pain, the result of a motorcycle accident a few years ago. You have a prescription for medical marijuana. However, you’re worried about your right to smoke on the work site and whether it will get you fired or arrested.

Both employees and employers need to know their rights and obligations.

Is it legal to use medical marijuana on the work site?
Employers: Tread carefully before jumping to any conclusions. Medical marijuana must be treated like any other prescription drug in most workplace scenarios. Usage is growing. Health Canada projects that the number of legal marijuana users in Canada could grow to as many as 450,000 in the next decade.


Workers: The first thing you should do is tell your employer about your prescription, and offer a note from your doctor detailing the nature of your condition. Concealing your use of medical marijuana could lead to termination with cause.

Is it safe?
Employers: Confirm that your employee can continue in their current work function, both from a safety and a physical limitations perspective. The employer must not discriminate against the employee, and in fact must accommodate the worker’s situation, even to the point of transferring him/her to another function.

Workers: Be smart. If you feel that using medical marijuana to treat your condition affects your cognitive abilities to operate equipment or perform effectively, be honest and say so. Be prepared to have your function altered if the employer feels safety is at risk. If the employer has a non-smoking policy, be prepared to take your medical marijuana in a non-smoking, non-vaporized form, possibly as tea or skin patches.

‘Do’s’ and ‘Don’ts’ on site
Employers: While you may continue to enforce company non-smoking policies, you may wish to consider allowing more frequent breaks for the employee, moving them to less safety-sensitive environments, or altering their schedule or duties. Their overall ‘fitness for duty’ may need to be assessed in consultation with the employee’s doctor.

Workers: A marijuana prescription does not entitle you to be high on the job, have the quality of your work compromised, or excuse you from being late or absent from work.

What about drug benefit coverage?
Given the direction of marijuana laws now and in the foreseeable future, it may not be possible for employers to enforce a zero-tolerance marijuana policy on their workers unless safety is impaired. It is also foreseeable that employees may begin to request coverage of their marijuana prescriptions through the company’s health benefit plan.

A specific case in Nova Scotia recently determined that denying coverage for medical marijuana under a company’s health plan amounted to discrimination under the province’s Human Rights Act.

In addition, the denial of coverage was found to be “inconsistent with the purpose of the benefit plan and had the adverse effect of depriving [the employee] of the medically necessary drug prescribed by a physician, even though the [benefit plan] covered other special requests for medically-necessary drugs prescribed by physicians for other beneficiaries.”

Although it may come down to a case-by-case assessment of a given health plan, it might be advisable for employers to look into the specifics of the plans currently offered to their workers.

Part Two : The opioid pain medication crisis in construction
Read Part Three (Prevention is better than cure)

Part Three (tomorrow): Specific measures to avoid musculoskeletal injury on work sites

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