Controlling the use of cannabis in the workplace now that it is ‘legal’

By Rhys Evans, Managing Director at ALCO-Safe 

Since the legalisation of cannabis for private use in South Africa, many organisations are struggling with how to adjust their substance control policies. A zero-tolerance approach is no longer feasible, since cannabis can now legally be consumed outside working hours. However, the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act still states that no person under the influence of alcohol or drugs may be permitted in the workplace. Therefore, organisations need to adjust their policies and adopt the most appropriate testing solution to ensure the safety of their workforce.  

There has been some confusion among workers who think that legalising marijuana means that they are now allowed to smoke it at work or before work. However, this is not the case. The situation is in fact similar to that of alcohol, in that while it is not illegal to partake of the substance, it remains illegal to work under its influence in terms of the OHS Act which states that employers should not allow any person who is or who appears to be under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs to enter or remain at a workplace. 

How then to enforce the OHS Act effectively with the legalisation of cannabis? Since the metabolism of cannabis is more complex than that of alcohol, it is also difficult to pinpoint exactly when the effects of cannabis dissipate, and at what point an individual can be considered to no longer be under its influence. The duration of the effect of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active substance in cannabis, is influenced by regular use, quantity smoked, and the THC content of the drug.  

On average, the effects of cannabis consumption last for three to six hours. However, different testing methods will detect THC in the system for different periods. For example, a urine test can detect metabolised THC for weeks or even months after the drug was used. However, the presence of the metabolised drug does not indicate intoxication. Urine testing is therefore not a feasible option for detecting whether a user is under the influence of cannabis.  

Saliva tests produce a positive result if the subject has used the drug within the past four to six hours depending on the cut off of the test and the quantity of cannabis used. As this is the generally accepted window for the influence of THC, it will enable a better idea of whether an individual is still affected. Those testing positive on a saliva test can have further testing, such as a blood test, to determine the level of THC in the body and the likelihood of the individual still being under its intoxicating effects.  

Unlike alcohol testing, it is not possible to enforce compulsory testing for use of cannabis, since the saliva swab takes about five minutes to produce a result. It is therefore necessary to conduct random testing and testing on suspicion as well as testing involved parties in the event of an accident or incident. This is in line with previous drug testing policies that may already be in place. Organisations can also specify pre-employment testing as a requirement.  

As a zero-tolerance approach to cannabis cannot be followed, organisations need to be very specific with their policies. The first step is to educate the workforce on what exactly the new law means, and then to set acceptable limits and state these explicitly in their policies. It is essential to specify that employees may not enter the workplace while under the influence of cannabis, and that they may not use it in the workplace or during their working hours. Random saliva testing will enable this to be effectively enforced.  

More information from Rhys Evans, Tel: +27(0)12 343 8114 / email: /