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Jack Knox: How pot, legal or not, spells trouble in the workplace

Here’s something to think of as Canada strolls toward marijuana-law reform: Even after smoking dope becomes legal, it could still cost you your job. It won’t even matter if you’re not stoned at work.

Jack Knox mugshot genericHere’s something to think of as Canada strolls toward marijuana-law reform: Even after smoking dope becomes legal, it could still cost you your job.

It won’t even matter if you’re not stoned at work. If you’re among those who submit to drug tests as a condition of employment, you could be out the door.

Canada isn’t like the U.S., where close to half the workforce is subject to urinalysis. Still, from the navy to the oil patch, there are plenty of places in the Great White North where peeing in a bottle may be required.

That won’t change once Ottawa makes marijuana legit. “The legality is immaterial,” says University of Victoria professor Scott MacDonald, the assistant director of the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. What employers care about is whether you can do your job while under the influence. It’s the same rule that applies to booze: It’s legal, but that doesn’t mean you can be drunk at work.

The big difference with marijuana — and this is huge — is that there’s no easy, certain test for drug impairment. There’s no equivalent to the breathalyzer.

Urinalysis, the most common method of testing, can determine whether metabolites of a drug are present in your system but cannot determine if you are stoned. And while all traces of some substances such as cocaine and alcohol disappear with days, metabolites of marijuana show up for weeks. People can test positive long after they’re high. “That’s the big shortcoming,” MacDonald said.

In some industries, workers will use alcohol or cocaine instead of marijuana while on leave, fearing they’ll test positive when they fly back to camp.

This is all controversial territory in Canada, where the courts have taken a much narrower approach than those of our neighbours.

In the U.S., where workplace testing became popular in the 1980s as a weapon in Ronald Reagan’s War On Drugs, the idea has been to depress drug use in general. To that end, it hasn’t been a roaring success: CNN reported this week that positive test results are on the rise, the increase tied to a heroin crisis in rural America and legalization of marijuana in states such as Washington and Colorado. In fact, American factories are turning to refugees because in some places it’s becoming hard to find enough U.S.-born workers who test clean. The numbers are particularly high in certain sectors. CNN said random testing at a Colorado oil and trucking company found 80 per cent of the workers tested positive.

Unlike their American counterparts, Canadian courts treat drug testing solely as a balancing act between individual rights and workplace safety. The point isn’t to eradicate drug use but to stop Buddy from driving over you with his front-end loader.

It is generally accepted that employers may demand a test if you had an accident or sketchy incident at work, or they have reason to think you are impaired on the job, or if you are coming back to work after substance-abuse treatment.

Our courts tend to frown on applying a broader brush, though. In 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a case involving New Brunswick pulp mill workers, ruled against random drug and alcohol testing, even in dangerous workplaces, unless the employer can prove there’s a related safety problem that needs to be solved.

But then came a 2016 Alberta court decision that allowed Suncor to continue testing thousands of workers in safety-sensitive jobs in the oil patch. That one has yet to be resolved.

In practical terms, employers can often write the rules until successfully challenged, and there are some indications the public is fine with that. A 2016 Insights West poll showed three in five Canadians thought employers should be able to administer drug tests if marijuana becomes legal.

It’s not all about rooting out and banishing abusers; it can also be about getting people the help they need to keep them in their jobs. Sue Donaldson of Victoria’s Pegasus Recovery Solutions says people in safety-sensitive positions — medical professionals or pilots, say — can be monitored for five years after treatment to help keep them on the straight and narrow.

“It’s one of the tools that can be helpful in facilitating ongoing, enduring recovery.”

But have no doubt, in some sectors the issue is black and white. You test positive, you don’t work.

On Thursday, I wrote about the Irwin family of Sooke. They had lived through infant daughter Daisy’s leukemia a decade ago, only to be struck a second time when dad Patrick was diagnosed with colon cancer last year.

Patrick died on Sunday, leaving behind Molly, 13, Daisy, 11, Violet, 6, and their mother Emma. The family is grateful to all those who have rallied to their aid.

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