How cannabis legalisation would effect your workplace


Will cannabis be legalised and what does this mean for employers?

The New Zealand cannabis referendum will be a non-binding referendum held on 17 October 2020 on the question of whether to legalise the sale, use, possession and production of cannabis.

“This provides a timely opportunity for employers to proactively review and assess the sufficiency of their approach to managing risks emerging from the potential impairment of drugs and alcohol in the workplace, including Policies to protect both employers and employees,” says Safe Business Solutions Health & Safety Consultant, Rob Thomson.

Cannabis impairment risks

Cannabis is an impairment risk – regardless of its legal status, states a paper released by the Business Leaders’ Health & Safety Forum. The substantive issue for work is its potential to impair people while on the job. It’s important to realise that cannabis use and the related risk of impairment at work is not a new issue for New Zealand workplaces.

The issue of a substance’s legality is secondary to its impact on impairment. Alcohol and prescription medicines are legal substances, and like cannabis, some have the potential to create impairment risks at work. Their legality does not diminish their impairment potential and commensurate need to manage that potential impact on health and safety at work.

As a result of that long-standing situation, most New Zealand organisations have some type of approach
for managing impairment risks from cannabis, alcohol and other substances including prescription medicines. If well-developed and effective, they will almost certainly be fit-for-purpose if cannabis is legalised. This means for those businesses with comprehensive impairment policies that are clear and aim to educate employees, the potential legalisation of cannabis is likely to have minimal impact.

Experiences from Canada, which legalised recreational use of cannabis in 2018 and shares a similar legislative approach for health and safety, strongly affirm a sensible and balanced call for businesses to continue to focus their efforts on managing the risk of impairment from drugs and alcohol.

Put simply – manage the risk, not the substance. Take the timely nature of the cannabis referendum to proactively assess and review your approach for managing drugs and alcohol at work.


The referendum is not about medicinal cannabis as some people believe, because earlier this year, GPs were able to lawfully prescribe medicinal cannabis without the Ministry of Health’s permission, enabling patients access to cannabis-based products through a prescription.

The referendum will actually decide whether cannabis can be grown in households and purchased and consumed, for personal use. Under the proposed bill, licensed cannabis retailers could sell up to 14 grams of dried cannabis (or its equivalent) a day, per person, to customers over the age of 20. This would equate to enough to roll approximately 42 joints a day. It would also allow people aged 20 and older to consume cannabis on either private property or licenced premises and grow two plants, with a maximum of four plants per household.

Commissioned by New Zealand’s largest medicinal cannabis company, Helius Therapeutics, the latest Horizon Research survey has revealed the final result is too close to call. When asked to make a choice between supporting or opposing the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, 52% of all respondents said they would vote in support, while 47% were against.

“Nearly one in 10 New Zealanders remain uncertain about how they’re going to vote on cannabis legalisation,” says Paul Manning, Chief Executive of Helius Therapeutics.

“Both camps’ ability to reach and connect to the public in the coming days will be absolutely critical to the referendum result. It’s staggering that nearly 300,000 Kiwis have yet to make up their minds, which makes it quite exciting but also somewhat unpredictable.”

By ethnicity, support levels were Māori 64%; Indian 55%; Pasifika 53%; NZ European 52%; Other European’ 50%; and Asian 41%.

At a 95% confidence level, the maximum margin of error is ±2.6%.

Impact on employers

If cannabis is legalised, will employers have to accept employees turning up to work ‘high’? How can employers ensure the safety of their workers if they are partaking in a recreational ‘puff’?

“Essentially, just as employers can currently insist that employees do not come to work under the influence of other legal substances such as alcohol, they will be able to (or continue to be able to) ensure that employees do not come to work under the influence of cannabis,” Thomson says.

“If cannabis is legalised, the existing ability to rely on the argument that “it’s illegal and therefore not acceptable in our workplace” will need to change. Instead, employers will need to focus on the actual impact of employees attending work under the influence of cannabis use (such as health & safety reasons) to justify low or zero tolerance policies. This change in approach should be reasonably straightforward in any business with safety sensitive roles.

“In much the same way as alcohol levels are currently managed in New Zealand, the Government and Employers would also need to consider whether any level of cannabis is acceptable, and if so what that level is (e.g. for employees using cannabis recreationally on the weekend or for medicinal purposes).

Employer guidance

“Essentially – guidance for employers is to manage the risk, not the moral argument,” says Thomson.

“Use the opportunity to proactively assess and review your workplace’s approach to managing drugs and alcohol at work.

“Employers should ensure that their employment agreements and Health & Safety policies accurately and adequately deal with the issue, because as with most legal documents the devil is in the detail (e.g. specific written agreement is required to test an employee for drugs and alcohol in the workplace). Is your company’s Drug & Alcohol Policy accessible to staff, does it make sense and is it easily understood? Is it clear why mitigating the risk of drugs and alcohol in the workplace matters to you as their employer, the company’s customers, the public and why it should matter to them?

“Should cannabis be legalised as a result of the referendum, it is inevitable that workplace policies will need to be modified to accommodate the changes.

“Employers have time to prepare for the possibility of legalised cannabis, because in the event of a “yes” vote in the referendum, the cannabis bill may be introduced by the incoming government following the referendum, but the results will not be binding and parliament will still have the option of putting the bill to a vote – which may not occur until 2021.

“For now however, it is a timely reminder to review your company’s employment agreements and Health & Safety policies – especially the Drugs & Alcohol Policy, to ensure they are up to date and fit for purpose.”

Navigating new medicinal cannabis laws

Meanwhile on the medicinal cannabis front, New Zealand’s first medicinal cannabis summit is one month away following New Zealand’s new medicinal cannabis regulations that took effect on 1 April 2020. MedCan Summit 2020 will ensure a greater scientific and medical understanding of cannabis, ultimately helping to advance the nation’s overall public health by ensuring better patient outcomes.

“Sadly, many of the remarkable benefits of cannabinoid compounds remain poorly understood by healthcare professionals. In fact, GPs not knowing enough about the plant’s primary constituents, THC and CBD, remains the biggest barrier to Kiwi patients accessing medicinal cannabis,” says Dr Champion.

Delegates will hear from over 40 world-leading and local subject experts, presenting either in-person or virtually.

As well as navigating the new regulations, there are new economic opportunities to explore. Organisers of MedCan 2020 say the economic potential of New Zealand’s most exciting sunrise industry is more important than ever before.

“Despite economic uncertainty, by 2025 medicinal cannabis is forecast to be a US$55 billion global industry. For New Zealand, it could deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in extra export earnings. In fact, we now need to make sure it does,” says Dr Zahra Champion, Executive Director of BioTechNZ and MedCan Summit 2020 organiser.

Focusing on quality, she believes, is where New Zealand can succeed globally, as it has with manuka honey and wine. Trade could prove extremely lucrative, with more than 60 countries having legalised medicinal cannabis.

“We cannot compete on the world stage as commodity sellers, churning out unprocessed product at scale. We can, however, develop and deliver high-quality products backed by science, technology and clinical trials,” she says.

“Our post-Covid economic recovery relies on new industries, investment, and jobs. New Zealand is strongly placed to be the premier new-world medicinal cannabis producer, leveraging its positive brand, highly regarded research expertise and scientific collaboration, and can-do entrepreneurial spirit. It’s time to come together and push play,” says Dr Champion.

The summit is set to take place on Monday 9 and Tuesday 10 November at the Aotea Centre in central Auckland.