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Cannabis and the workplace

Published 21 Oct 2020

The question is not if, but rather when cannabis becomes decriminalised in New Zealand.  The recent referendum might be a national debate in 2020, but internationally there has been a growing move towards the decriminalisation of cannabis for much longer. In the past decade, partial decriminalisation of cannabis has occurred from Europe to Africa and complete legalisation happening in Canada and Uruguay.  New Zealand’s proposed bill is therefore on the frontline of this international discussion. 

Most of the debate regarding the decriminalisation in New Zealand has been focused on the abuse by and easy access minors will have to the product. The opposite argument is the $185 million-plus tax revenue for the country.  Little narrative has focused on the impact on the workplace or workforce. 

If cannabis is decriminalised, employers will still be able to enforce policies to prohibit use and possession in the workplace. These policies will be implemented similarly to the way alcohol is monitored.
The main purpose of these policies will be preventing the use of, possession and distribution of cannabis in the workplace and limiting the affect recreational usage will have on an employee's ability to work.

The onus for testing an employee will remain on the basis set out by the courts in Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union and Air New Zealand. The court’s decision to limit testing to safety-sensitive areas and reasonable suspicion will remain.  However, the consequences of testing positive for cannabis versus other illegal substances will be the main area of change. Presenting a positive test for any substance that contravenes the law together with the company policy can aggravate the sanction.

The fact that cannabis can remain present in a test for several weeks after usage, poses the biggest challenge. Although different tests can determine the level of cannabis in an employee’s system it is far from an exact science. Proving the effect/impact on the workplace and/or work relationship will come down to the employee’s performance and/or actions rather than the results of the test.

Creating clear guidelines to prevent unnecessary disputes in the workplace is vital. Such guidelines need to focus on usage, possession and testing. At EAL we are working towards ensuring that all employers are protected for such unexpected and unfamiliar changes and will ensure that guidelines will be available on the Employers Toolbox, should 2020 be the year for this change. 

Some information should the current proposed bill be passed:

  • Only people 20 years and older can purchase and possess cannabis;
  • Possession at any time is limited to 14 grams of cannabis or two plants for personal use;
  • Only registered retailers can sell cannabis
  • Only 14 grams can be gifted between persons.