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Drug Use and Public Safety

Phil Verster, the CEO of Ontario’s Metrolinx, the regional transportation agency which operates GO Transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, recently captured headlines by announcing changes to the agency’s fitness-for-duty policies which came into effect on February 1st, 2019.  The changes focus on workers’ use of recreational cannabis.  They are clear and to the point.

Mr. Verster said, after spending a year studying the science around the effects of cannabis use on reaction time, all workers in approximately 140 different roles, including vehicle operators will be banned from using the drug.  “We’ve had to make the very difficult call on whether the safety interests of the public … and our communities outweighs the interests of the individual to use cannabis on a recreational basis,” he said.  “We’ve decided very clearly that the safety of everyone is paramount.”

Self-report drug use

This policy will have an impact on about half of Metrolinx’s 3,700 direct employees and hundreds of contractors, namely those who are engaged in the 140 roles designated as ‘safety sensitive’.  The new policy encourages employees to self-report their cannabis use. A worker who does so will be re-assigned to a non ‘safety sensitive’ position until the drug is deemed to no longer be in their system.  A supervisor who has reasonable grounds for believing a worker has used cannabis can request the worker be tested. Testing is mandatory following any work-related incident. Violation of the policy can result in termination. 

Injury lawyer works with impaired driving

Metrolinx’s new policy invites comparison with fitness-for-duty policies in other safety sensitive workplaces.  Air Canada, WestJet, and Jazz imposed a blanket ban on cannabis use for employees directly involved in flight operations, Transport Canada having warned that cannabis is a “potential threat” to aviation safety.

Calgary police also have a strict “no drug” policy, while Toronto police and the RCMP ban cannabis use within 28 days of reporting for active duty. Reportedly, the policy of the Vancouver police department allows all staff, including its officers, to use cannabis while off-duty as long as they are not impaired at work, and sets no specific time limit for stopping cannabis use before a shift.

One reason for such a broad range of approaches to such a critically important workplace policy stems from the complicated nature of cannabis impairment.  The bio-chemistry, the effect on the brain, the rate at which cannabis leaves the human body, individual metabolic differences, regular use compared to infrequent use —all of these factors are still being studied.

Breaking into personal lives

The unknowns also invite challenges to the propriety and efficacy of these policies.  While acknowledging that transit professionals should report to work fit for duty every day, John Di Nino, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents about 2,200 Metrolinx workers, said the new rules are an overreach into workers’ personal lives.  “If we have to go to the Supreme Court of Canada we will,” he said. “This is a constitutional issue. No one should be able to tell anybody what they can do on their own time.”

Phil Verster said he would welcome a legal challenge for the clarity it might provide.  Air Canada’s spokesperson was quoted as saying their policy was settled on “out of an abundance of caution based on current understanding of the effects of these drugs, including their after-effects and the potential they can linger in the human system” and that it will be reviewed regularly in the light of whatever new information is forthcoming.

Road Rules by Cedric Hughes