Employment & Labour

Medical marijuana offered as employee benefit

By April Cunningham, Associate Editor

A plan by a major Canadian grocery and pharmacy chain to offer coverage for medical marijuana is a perk that should not cause controversy if it is treated like any other drug, says Vaughan employment lawyer Arthur Zeilikman.

But since medical marijuana use is often stigmatized, even when legally prescribed, the company benefit is gaining attention, says Zeilikman, principal of Zeilikman Law.

Loblaw Companies Limited and Shoppers Drug Mart now reimburses medical pot purchases under the employee benefit plan up to a maximum of $1,500 per year, the Toronto Star reports.

Zeilikman says that, in theory, so long as it is legal, there is really no difference between paying for an employee’s medical marijuana or some other pain medication. Both would be supplied under the employee’s group insurance plan.

“The primary issue would be if the employee’s safety, the safety of others or the employee’s performance is compromised during working hours," Zeilikman tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Although drug abuse is a separate matter from allowing medical marijuana to become a contractual right and benefit of employees, intoxication at work due to marijuana or any other drugs or alcohol could become problematic, he says.

In situations of a staff member being drunk or high at work, they should face consequences in accordance with company policies, Zeilikman says.

On the other hand, employers have a duty to accommodate addiction or other forms of illness to the point of undue hardship, he says.

"It remains to be seen how it will play out once marijuana becomes more mainstream as there is a distinction between medicinal and recreational use," he says. The federal government is expected to legalize recreational marijuana by July 2018.

“There is a stigma surrounding marijuana. I think that’s part of the problem with the debate — any discussions should take place against the backdrop of facts backed by science as opposed to public perception."

According to the Star, Loblaw, which owns Shoppers, could become the largest Canadian employer to offer the benefit.

“To date, coverage of medical marijuana under group insurance plans is extraordinarily rare,” Manulife spokesperson Anne-Julie Gratton, who did not specifically comment on Loblaw, told the newspaper.

Shoppers has already applied to become a licensed marijuana producer to sell medicinal weed.

While many employers may be grappling with updating policies surrounding marijuana legalization, Zeilikman says ultimately, it should be treated no differently than any other legal drug with behavioral side effects.

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