Medical & Recreational Cannabis – What You Need to Know

Aug 09 | 2018

There’s no getting around the fact that medical cannabis is a hot topic in the benefits industry right now. And with the upcoming legalization of recreational cannabis on October 17th, 2018, it’s bound to get even hotter. As a Canadian employer, here’s what you need to know.

Medical vs. Recreational Cannabis: What’s the Difference?

Medical cannabis (MC) has been legal in Canada since 2001 and can be used to treat a number of medical conditions, while recreational cannabis (RC) remains illegal in Canada until October 17th, 2018.

One important distinction between the two comes in the form of accommodation. Employers have a duty to accommodate employees until undue hardship1. This accommodation includes use of legally prescribed MC in the same way it would be extended to any other disabled employee who has been prescribed medication. However, in most cases, this requirement will not extend to the legal RC product come October, and the level of accommodation will be up to the individual employer. We’ll talk more about this in the next section.

Learn more about accommodation and medical cannabis on our webinar recording of “Medical Cannabis: What it Means for the Workplace”.

View recording

Another difference is coverage. MC can be covered under the right benefits plan. It has taken a while for insurers to begin covering MC due to a combination of not having a Drug Identification Number (DIN) and a lack of available research. Recently, more research has become available about the effectiveness of MC in combating the effects of medical conditions including, but not limited to:

  • Chronic neuropathic pain
  • Spasticity due to multiple sclerosis
  • Nausea and vomiting due to cancer chemotherapy

Which is why some insurers like Green Shield Canada (GSC) have begun incorporating medical cannabis into benefits plans*. As new evidence and research comes to light, we anticipate the list of covered conditions to grow.

Implications of Legalization on Human Resources Policies

The upcoming legalization of RC may have significant implications on your Human Resources (HR) policies. To illustrate this, let’s use an example most employers can relate with: the company holiday party. In time for this years’ holiday party, employees will legally be able to consume RC for the first time. Ask yourself, “How will my workplace handle this new situation?”

Here’s a few things we wanted to highlight for workplaces to begin thinking about:

  • Impairment. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the main chemical compound in cannabis that causes impairment. The amount of time a person remains impaired will be different per person (and depending on how it is ingested). However, THC can remain in a person’s system for up to 30 days after consumption, which makes proving impairment by cannabis difficult.2
  • Utilize existing policies. When setting HR policies around cannabis, many HR professionals recommend adopting a very similar stance to recreational marijuana as with alcohol by incorporating it into existing policies.
  • Communication is key. Whatever stance you adopt on RC, it’s important to make sure your employees know what that is.
  • Educate employees. It will be important to educate employees on the risks of cannabis, THC and impairment, as well as the everything we’ve spoken about above, including accommodation and the difference between recreational and medical cannabis.

You can gain incredible insight into some of the implications for workplaces from this recording of a live discussion forum with BBD’s partner Your Workplace and a number of industry experts from different backgrounds.

*Subject to prior authorization, with criteria based on specific medical conditions.


  1. “Undue Hardship Standard.” Ontario Human Rights Commission,
  2. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Workplace Strategies: Risk of Impairment from Cannabis, 2nd ed., CCOHS, 2018.

Check out our Case Study where we ask the question, “Can your benefits plan accommodate a prescription for medical cannabis?”

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