Stirring the legalization pot

WETASKIWIN, Alta. – During a joint effort with the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada (PMTC) May 3 in Wetaskiwin, Alta., Dr. Barry D. Kurtzer attempted to weed out any apprehensions people had about what he said was the inevitable introduction of medical marijuana into the workplace.

PMTCMarijuana edit 2
Dr. Barry Kurtzer

The PMTC brought Kurtzer, medical director and chief medical review officer of DriverCheck Inc., to address matters surrounding safety and a suitable game plan when it comes to employees, such as truck drivers, legally authorized to use medical marijuana when suffering from a one of a variety of ailments, like arthritis, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic non-cancer neuropathic pain.

Kurtzer said the introduction of the drug could have an impact on an array of workplace regulations, such as the Occupational Health and Safety Act, labour law and collective bargaining agreement, the Workers’ Compensation Act, Highway Traffic Act and international law, such as the US Department of Transportation.

“This is a rapidly evolving field (and) the rest of the world is watching Canada,” Kurtzer said, adding that rules around the use of medical marijuana are ever changing. “When used properly, medical marijuana can be both relatively benign and remarkably useful.”

He added there is no clinical evidence that points to marijuana use resulting in death, that overdoses simply do not happen with the drug and side-effects are for the most part manageable.

The doctor said people should drop the stigma surrounding the use of marijuana from the ’60s hippy looking to get high, and instead accept that there are a multitude of medically relevant uses for the drug.

“The evils of cannabis are misdirected,” he said, “and are not applicable to medical marijuana.”

In a nutshell, medical marijuana has been around since the Marihuana Medical Access Regulation (MMAR) was passed in 2001, which Kurtzer said was “very complicated.” The MMAR was replaced in 2014 by the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulation (MMPR), and established Health Canada as an overseeing body and no longer approving patients or distributing the drug.

Then, a February 2016 ruling by B.C. court judge Michael Phalen permitted medical marijuana authorized patients to grow their own product, and declared that MMPR infringed on patient rights. Phalen gave the federal government six months to rewrite its medical marijuana rules, or risk having no valid law, meaning authorized patients, estimated to be around 28,000, would again be using the drug illegally.

In addition to the ongoing saga that is legal medical marijuana use and production, Kurtzer said companies must also be ready for the possibility that the new Liberal government could eventually legalize marijuana all together, meaning anyone could use the product as they choose, much the same as alcohol.

Which is why Kurtzer stressed during the session that companies establish an action plan when it comes to monitoring and enforcement policies for medical marijuana use for employees in and out of the workplace. He said utilizing the services of an expert, such as a lawyer or policy professional, would be a necessity.

The core components of the plan should include a medical marijuana policy, education, training, an independent medical examination, testing, monitoring outcomes and accommodation for employees if they are not fit for safety sensitive work when possible.

Health Canada estimates that there will be 450,000 authorized medical marijuana patients by 2024. Current statistics indicate that there are 2.4 million overall users of the drug in Canada, 1.6% being recognized medical users, 16.1% non-recognized medical users and 82.3% other. And a key question companies have to consider is are they going to allow authorized patients to use medical marijuana at work?

“They are going to be coming into your workplace saying they are authorized medical marijuana users,” Kurtzer said. “And some patients are going to be impaired when using medical marijuana just like they are if they were to use Tylenol 3. You really do need quality and legal input.”

Some of the side-effects from using medical marijuana can include euphoria, anxiety, changes in alertness, negative coordination, movement and cognitive functions changes. Warning signs that an employee could be misusing the drug are irritability, nervousness, anxiety, restlessness, and depression.

The doctor said a solid monitoring system and drug testing policy should be in place for all companies, adding that drug testing must not be omitted simply because an employee is authorized to use medical marijuana because the test may find that they are using more than just the legally prescribed drug.

Kurtzer said trucking companies should ask themselves if, under their medical marijuana policy, are they
trying to evaluate risk or impairment? He added that with blood testing not
being a desirable testing method in workplace situations. Another sticky situation when it comes to Canadian drivers using medical marijuana is crossing the Canada-US border, as the US federal government does not recognize the substance as legal, and would arrest anyone attempting to bring the substance into the country.

Despite the District of Columbia and 23 states having independently approved medical marijuana use and four permitting recreational use of the drug, the federal government enforces the US borders and would not adhere to any individual state laws.

“They do not care in the US if a Canadian driver has medical marijuana authorization,” Kurtzer said. “They will be stopped at the border and arrested if they have it.”

Derek Clouthier

A university graduate with a degree in English, I have worked in the media and trucking industries as a writer, editor, and now as western bureau chief of Today's Trucking and I have several years of management experience in journalism, as well as hospitality, but am first and foremost a writer, both professionally and in my personal life, having completed two fiction novels.

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