Legalized pot: a joint challenge for construction

Date: 
Monday, July 16, 2018

The federal government’s cannabis legalization plan is creating a challenge for workers and employers in the construction industry — in conflicting ways.

By E. Bordiga

The federal Liberal government announced earlier this year it would carry through on a campaign promise to legalize marijuana for recreational use. On Canada Day, legalization will take effect pending the adoption of Bill C-45 by Parliament this session. It will allow any Canadian aged 18 and over to buy and possess up to 30 grams of legally approved marijuana. But the bill says nothing about regulation of the drug in relation to worksites and that has created a rumbling wave across numerous economic sectors, including construction, across the country. Some employer organizations are calling for more power to conduct arbitrary testing and discipline — something unions oppose.

“It’s important the industry under- Unions also have something to say about changes to Canada’s marijuana laws. Joshua Berson photo Legalized pot: a joint challenge for construction Summer 2018 / BC BUILDING TRADES tradetalk 17 stand the difference between actual marijuana use with THC (tetrahydrocannabidinol — the intoxicant part of the substance) and cannabidiols (CBD — a largely non-addictive part of the plant often used as an anti-inflammatory and for treating stress disorders),” said Vicky Waldron, executive director of the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan.

The real focus of concern is the “opioid epidemic,” she said, the overuse of prescription pain-relief medicines leading to addiction issues. “I don’t think that (marijuana legalization) will mean an increase of people smoking marijuana on the job. People already know they can’t drive or operate equipment and even that they can’t be on the job if they have been smoking it. I don’t see that increasing at all.”

However, the Ontario General Contractors’ Association, the largest contractor group in the country, released a letter to the Ontario attorney general urging clarification of the bill. “We are concerned that the issues we have with impairment and the use of intoxicating substances is a threat to worker safety…We are worried that the legalization of cannabis is about to make this problem much worse.”

It also referred to rising workers’ compensation rates and lawsuits resulting from drug-related injuries or deaths on the job. The association claims that coroner inquests into workplace fatalities show that close to 40 per cent of fatalities are related to substance use. It is seeking greater power to subject workers to drug testing before being hired and other invasive pre-emptive measures. “It is our experience that the abuse of substances is a growing issue with our workplaces, and the legalization of cannabis will significantly increase usage leading to a spike in workplace injury and fatalities.”

The 1,500-member labourers’ union local in Windsor, Ontario has come up with a way to accept the new regulations and address employers’ fears. According to Benefits Magazine (a publication monitoring the development of health and welfare plans across Canada), the union provides coverage for medical-related cannabis purchases for its retired and disabled members and their dependents. Current working members cannot access medical marijuana through the plan, except for cannabidiol oil, which has the lowest amount of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

However, Yves Ouellet, general director of the Quebec Federation of Labour’s 78,000 construction union members, said workers are familiarizing themselves with the new law and are aware as ever about the importance of maintaining safety and security on construction sites. “This doesn’t mean that on July 2, everyone is going to start smoking joints on construction sites,” he told the Montreal Gazette. “Alcohol is legal and everyone doesn’t go down four scotches on their break. We ourselves are going to constantly seek to deliver information that is more pertinent for our members, to explain exactly what this means and all the implications.” He said there was no need to panic or call for intrusive rules on workers.

“By legalizing cannabis, they’re not taking away the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. So there can’t be abuse of power on the matter with bosses jumping on everyone, wanting to fix certain situations because that’s what they think is going on,” he said. “We have to be extremely careful about workers’ rights, so that this doesn’t become arbitrary.”

Meanwhile, some construction trades’ member assistance programs are focusing on marijuana and preventative measures to avoid addiction. And some are adding medical marijuana, already legalized, to their extended health plans for workers who want alternatives to opiates for chronic pain control.

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