Some workers have been stood down while others face stigma or are hiding their use. But reform could be on the way.
When Zhia Zariko told her manager she had a legal prescription for medical cannabis, she hoped it would help break down the stigma that people who use marijuana are “useless stoners”.
“Now everyone knows they work with someone who is a very high level worker, very hardworking, very engaged – and I am on medicinal cannabis,” says the university lecturer from Melbourne.
“Until people like me say I’m actively taking it and it helps me do my job, the stigma is never going to go away.”
But not all workplaces are so accepting – and some people risk losing their jobs if they are open about their use of the drug.
Medical cannabis is an issue that businesses, employees, unions and governments across Australia are trying to navigate after its introduction as a prescribed medication.
James*, a New South Wales mechanic, was prescribed medical cannabis by his doctor for anxiety and depression. But after declaring his use of cannabis to his employer he was stood down, so he stopped taking it.
“It was terrible,” he says. “It broke me because they forced my hand.”
James says he informed his employer in February that he had been prescribed cannabis, prompting discussions between his union, the company’s HR department and his doctor. In May, as his employer contemplated how to deal with the issue, he was required to perform a urine drug test at work.
He declared during the testing process that he had used medical cannabis on the weekend. Despite passing the test, James was stood down with two weeks’ pay.
James says the company told him he had to stop the medication or rethink his employment. “They’re not a doctor but they’ve basically said you need to stop taking your medication.”
Michael, an electrician from western Victoria, is hiding his medical cannabis use from his employer and every day he risks the possibility of failing a urine drug test.
He was prescribed the drug three years ago and informed his employer, as required by his contract. But last year the company said its new policy stipulated that staff taking medical cannabis must not consume products containing THC – a compound commonly associated with the drug’s psychoactive “high” effects (some products do not contain THC).
Michael is still taking medical cannabis containing THC in the evenings, saying it helps him sleep and he is never impaired at work.
“It’s like running the gauntlet. It makes me worried because I need to provide for my family,” he says.
Zariko, 33, was prescribed medical cannabis six months ago for anxiety and sleeping issues. She is firm in her belief that it has improved her productivity at work.
“I would be worse at my job if I lost my medicinal cannabis,” she says.
A push for change
Victorian parliament’s upper house will next week debate a motion to establish an inquiry into workplace drug testing regulations and consider potential reforms around medical cannabis.
The Legalise Cannabis party, who moved the motion, say some workplaces have drug testing rules that discriminate against medical cannabis users and force them to choose between their medication or their livelihood.
In Australia, medical cannabis can be accessed with a prescription and is regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. It can be prescribed for a range of health conditions including anxiety and depression, nausea arising from cancer, pain resulting from multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and endometriosis.
Legalise Cannabis argues medical cannabis should be treated in the same way as other prescription medication, meaning it is not a barrier to employment if someone is not impaired at work.
But since there is no impairment test for cannabis, prescribed users still risk failing a workplace drug test – or losing their licence for driving with cannabis in their system.
Zariko, who is the sole income earner in her household, says if her employer were to mandate workplace drug testing she would be forced to quit her medication.
But she fears she would suffer a “breakdown” and anxiety if she had to stop her medication.
“I was suffering in a way I didn’t realise I was suffering until I didn’t feel anxiety,” she says. “It would be debilitating to lose it.”
Trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, can be detected in urine tests for up to 30 days after consumption. This means people can test positive to a drug test, despite the effects having long worn off. Reform advocates say this means medical cannabis users are treated as though they have consumed an illicit substance.
In the workplace, some industries such as mining or transport have legislative requirements to test for illicit drug use while others conduct drug testing under occupational health and safety schemes or enterprise agreements.
Employees can launch an unfair dismissal claim if they allege that their dismissal on the basis of cannabis use was unreasonable.
But lawyer Mat Henderson says it will likely take a workplace medical cannabis discrimination case to be won to spark reform.
“We’re waiting for someone to win a case and for the law to be nudged along,” says Henderson, who has represented several clients who use medical cannabis.
Henderson say office-based employees who allowed at least 12 hours between the onset of the drug’s effects and the start of work would likely have the best chance of winning a case if they faced adverse action from their workplace.
Zariko’s partner, who also has a prescription for medical cannabis, has previously worked in manual labour jobs, industries for which routine drug tests are common. This means the family survives on just Zariko’s income because her partner would likely fail a drug test.
“If I did lose my job, most of the jobs he could get he actually just can’t so our income goes from potential to nothing.”
David Ettershank, a Victorian Legalise Cannabis MP, says medical cannabis users are experiencing a stigma not applied to other medications.
“This is medicine, so it really needs to be treated as medicine,” he says.
“And from the perspective of a worker who actually needs this medication to go to work in the first place, when this medicine is prescribed, it should not trigger any process targeting illicit drug use.”
Source: The Guardian