Recreational marijuana legalization raises new questions for employers

The recent legalization of recreational cannabis in Canada has brought up a lot of new questions for employers, according to one expert.

“Now that we’re past legalization, this is a great time to revisit the conversation on benefits coverage. It’s important to have that conversation, rather than delaying it,” said Jonathan Zaid, director of advocacy and corporate social responsibility at Aurora Cannabis Inc., during a session at the 2018 Calgary Drug Trends Summit on Oct. 25.

Read: Medical questions, regulations create confusion for medical pot coverage

The benefits of medical cannabis are clear, according to Zaid, who was the first Canadian to receive coverage of the drug through a benefits plan. According to Health Canada’s 2017 cannabis survey, 97 per cent of respondents found symptom relief by using medical cannabis and 72 per cent of those respondents decreased their use of other medications, which most often included opioids. And another report on the health effects of recreational and therapeutic cannabis use found conclusive evidence that it helps adults with issues such as chronic pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea.

When related to the workplace, employers’ key responsibilities include ensuring employees’ safety and the duty to accommodate, including the right for workers to use prescription drugs. Employers can meet the first responsibility through an effective drug and alcohol policy, said Zaid. And they can meet the second responsibility in a variety of ways, including modifying their benefits plan to cover medical cannabis.

Many plan sponsors have received requests to cover medical cannabis under their benefits plan, “and this will likely continue,” said Zaid, noting that some insurers are starting to offer cannabis coverage as an add-on. When people who need medical cannabis are able to access it, “real offsets come in less absenteeism.”

Read: A look at four benefits plan models for covering medical marijuana

Promising data is coming out of the United States, with fewer claims being made under Medicare and higher employee productivity in states that have legalized medical cannabis, said Zaid. “There is the potential for cost reduction, meeting employee needs and protection from human rights complaints.”

In terms of risk, Zaid said he thinks most of the risks associated with cannabis use can be mitigated by a workplace impairment policy. “When we talk about cannabis, we have to put it in a larger context. It can be handled in an evidence-based, responsible way. We can mitigate the risks, like we do with any other drug.”

Plan sponsors can include coverage in a number of ways: after engaging a third party to assess employee eligibility based on a pre-approved list of health conditions, they can choose to offer unlimited coverage; a percentage of the claim coverage; or provide an annual budget for each approved employee through a general health-care spending account or a health-care spending account for medical cannabis. This way, plan sponsors can set up limits and budget in a predictable way.

For an employer considering the inclusion of medical cannabis in a benefits plan, the best starting point is to look at the current plan structure and from there, find the best way to cover it, suggested Zaid.

Read more coverage of the 2018 Calgary Drug Trends Summit.