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Legalising Cannabis and What it Could Mean for Construction Industry

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Cannabis has been around since the dawn of time and has been used for both medicinal and recreational purposes. As discussions regarding the legalisation of cannabis continue in New Zealand, what impact could it have on our Industry?

A recent Civil Contractors annual report has highlighted legalised cannabis as an issue looming over the sector, with two-thirds of respondents saying it would negatively impact their business. 

Civil Contractors NZ chief Peter Silcock said businesses were already struggling with staff recruitment due to substance abuse, which would become “even harder” with the legalisation of marijuana. 

However, Rachel Westby from Washington State disagrees. “Cannabis for recreational use has been legal here for a few years now. Union gigs are more strict about testing. On most residential job sites and some commercial job sites, it’s not frowned upon. I haven’t seen it be a problem. It’s really been a non-issue.”

Cannabis and the Job site

Over in Canada, Jaylene Denton shared her experience. “I work as an electrician in commercial construction. Nothing is different at the job site since legalising marijuana. Industrial sites still have a zero tolerance. Some of the best tradesmen I have worked with use it in their own time.”

Ann-Louise Anderson, director at Inscience Ltd, wonders whether cannabis users are, or will be, unfairly targeted in the workplace.

With an acknowledged shortage of skilled tradespeople, Anderson said that the question whether cannabis users are unfairly targeted at work must be asked. It’s especially worth considering as cannabis metabolites can stay in the system long after impairing effects wear off.

Whether cannabis is legalised or not, the real issue sits with testing. The ultimate goal in our industry is to provide a safe workplace.

Across industries desperate for construction workers, tradies, qualified truck and forklift drivers, there are many qualified candidates who are locked out of employment. The reason, Anderson believes, is recreational or medicinal use of cannabis which identifies them as unsafe to work.       

Whether cannabis is legalised or not, the real issue sits with testing. The ultimate goal in our industry is to provide a safe workplace. That also means one that is free from impaired workers. So how do we ensure testing reflects one’s true ability at the time of testing?

Implications of Cannabis Legalisation

Current testing methods see cannabis users hit hard.  Although alcohol has, in many instances, the same acute impairment period as cannabis, it is treated very differently. Alcohol is detectable in breath for up to 12 hours after the last drink. Cannabis, on the other hand, is detectable for around 30 days, sometimes longer, despite the fact that in many cases, there is no impairment in the worker the next day following use. Even then, a urine test will confirm the presence of the drug.

“We are already having problems because unlike alcohol, marijuana stays in the system for weeks. Even if it’s legal, and you partake on the weekends, you will still test positive on Monday,” said Renee Conner, member of S.A.L.T.

According to Anderson, one potential method of establishing a fairer approach is opting for saliva testing instead of urine. Such testing would help identify recent use, more accurately reflecting the acute impairment period for each drug class. This differentiates between the mere presence of metabolites and likely impairment.

A verified saliva test makes this method of checking for cannabis readily available to employers. It’s also a fairer way of checking for drug impairment rather than drug use. 

Understanding the Symptoms and Signs

Safework Laboratories is an Australian company offering drug and alcohol policy advice, training, and education, along with onsite drug and alcohol testing. Their experience in the industry shows that marijuana creates quite an impact in the workplace, especially on work performance. According to Safework Laboratories, some accidents that result in injuries and deaths in the workplace have happened due to the use of marijuana at work.

An employee who uses marijuana at work is likely to suffer from short-term memory problems, impaired thinking, and an impaired ability to perform more complex tasks, such as operating heavy equipment and driving vehicles.

While we wait for the referendum, employers can prepare for the possibility of legalised cannabis by reviewing employment agreements and policies. Thus, they can ensure their drug and alcohol policies are up to date and fit for purpose heading into 2020.


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