At-work use of cannabis reported by 1 in 12 workers—no change since legalization

In follow-up study of cannabis use before and after legalization in Canada, IWH research team found a rise in casual use, but no increase in at-work or daily use

Published: April 15, 2020

Despite concerns that the legalization of recreational cannabis in 2018 would result in greater cannabis use at work, interim findings from an ongoing Institute for Work & Health (IWH) study suggest this isn’t the case.

The study’s findings do point to a change in overall use following legalization: a greater percentage of workers reported having used cannabis in the past 12 months. However, there is no evidence that more workers are using cannabis more frequently or that there’s an increase in at-work use. 

The findings were presented by IWH Associate Scientist Dr. Nancy Carnide at an IWH Speaker Series presentation in March. They were drawn from two survey cycles with Canadians—the first conducted about four months before legalization took effect on October 17, 2018, and the second conducted in 2019, about nine to 11 months after legalization.

In the first (pre-legalization) survey, 30 per cent of workers said they had never used cannabis. That number remained practically unchanged in the second (post-legalization) survey, with 29 per cent saying they had never used cannabis.

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What changed more noticeably—and significantly—was the share of people who said it had been more than a year since they used cannabis (42 per cent said so before legalization versus  33 per cent after) compared to those who reported using it within the past 12 months (29 per cent before legalization versus 38 per cent after). The results suggest that, since legalization, workers who have used cannabis in the past may have tried again, but not as a daily habit, says Carnide.

Encouragingly for employers, results also indicate that workplace use of cannabis has not increased. When asked whether they had used cannabis within two hours before work, at work, during work breaks, or at the workplace at the end of a work shift, the percentage of workers who said yes remained stable at eight per cent.

That said, it still means one in 12 workers are using cannabis at a time that may affect their work. That number is about one in five if we look specifically at workers who reported using cannabis in the past year, says Carnide. The results speak to the continued need to educate workers about the potential risks of at-work use.

Carnide also notes that not all workers use cannabis just for recreation. In the most recent survey, 16 per cent said they used cannabis to manage a work-related injury or illness, whether physical or mental. In both surveys, 24 to 27 per cent of people who used cannabis said they did so for both recreational and medical reasons, and an additional seven to eight per cent said they used it exclusively for medical reasons.

Taking pulse of workers' perceptions

The study also asked workers about their perceptions of cannabis use at work. In both pre- and post- surveys, workers predominantly thought it would be difficult to get, buy or sell cannabis at work or to use cannabis while working. But they were split about whether it was difficult or easy to bring cannabis to work or to use cannabis during lunch or other breaks. Compared to pre-legalization, workers post-legalization were slightly more inclined to think their colleagues used cannabis at or just before work. However, the percentage difference was very slight—all in the single digits for questions of that nature.

Larger differences were found for questions related to organizational policies around cannabis. When asked if their employers had formal policies on substance use in the workplace, the share of workers who said yes went up, from 63 to 79 per cent. Also up was the share of workers who said their workplace policy explicitly mentions cannabis (from 32 to 73 per cent).

However, even after legalization (the question wasn’t asked in the first survey), only 30 per cent of workers said their employers had a reporting protocol they would be comfortable using if they suspected co-workers of impairment. Also, only 25 per cent of workers said their employer had provided education or information about cannabis use or the effects of cannabis.

Some research literature suggests that having a policy is important, but not necessarily sufficient, says Carnide. Workplaces probably need to be more proactive in providing education on the topic.