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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Canadian Oil Patch Grapples With Cannabis Legalization

As of today, recreational cannabis consumption is legal in Canada. While many Canadian citizens and companies will be celebrating the reform, not to mention preparing to capitalize on this green-golden opportunity, the Canadian oil and gas industry will be ringing in the new era with considerably less enthusiasm.

Canadian oil companies and workers’ unions are busy scrambling to finalize a plan to maintain safe operating standards in an era of legal and easily attainable marijuana. In Canada’s oil sands, workers perform risky maneuvers and operate heavy equipment daily, making health and safety an especially critical issue. Legal weed poses a unique challenge to an industry that has long maintained a zero-tolerance policy for drugs, alcohol, and general on-site impairment in Fort McMurray's oil sands.

Energy Safety Canada (ESC), the domestic oil industry’s association for workplace safety, said that it anticipates much higher rates of cannabis use among oil and gas workers in the wake of legalization. Despite the difficulties this change in legislation will likely bring to the oil industry, ESC has already publicly supported workers’ rights to consume the legal substance when they are not on the job. "We do expect we will see an uptick in usage," said ESC president Murray Elliott. "But it won't be the end of the world."

Cannabis use in workers’ free time is one thing but being impaired in a site as fraught with potential hazards as the oil sands is another issue entirely. As such, ESC has created guidelines for the industry that helps to identify different levels of impairment, much like what the federal government is using to evaluate drivers who may be under the influence of cannabis. Even with these guidelines, however, much about cannabis use in the oil industry remains unclear. ESC’s Elliott acknowledged as much and said that there remain a lot of unknowns about the impact of marijuana use in the workers, but that there will need to be more research (and therefore more funding) on the subject to better understand the potential and actual impact. Related: Saudi Arabia Calls The End Of Russia’s Oil Prowess

While the industry works to create new standards under changing legislation, oil workers’ unions are also discussing their own approach to the legalization of marijuana in Canada. Walter Ticas, president of Fort McMurray union Unifor 770 A, which represents Suncor workers, says that Suncor still has not solidified their policies around cannabis, which means that workers will have to get proactive in protecting themselves and anticipating impending policy changes. Ticas is advising union members to be very careful about not only not coming to work high, but also to be sure to leave all marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia at home, going so far as to keep their work and casual wardrobes completely separate. Accidentally leaving a roach in a jacket pocket could lead to big problems thanks to strict zero-tolerance standards in the oil sands.

In response to guidelines for measuring marijuana impairment, Ticas says that they will cause a major challenge to workers and employers alike. Determining someone’s degree of marijuana impairment is not a simple thing--there’s no equivalent to a breathalyzer, for example, no index as black and white as blood alcohol level. In light of this, Ticas is imploring union members and oil industries employees in general to depend upon their own "good judgment" when monitoring their recreational or medical cannabis consumption. "Just respect cannabis and understand the effects it takes on your body," he said. "If you feel different days after consumption, speak up."

Canada is only the second country, after Uruguay, to legalize marijuana for recreational use, which means that there is no manual and next to zero precedent for industry response. In the oil sands, a workplace with unique hazards and correspondingly strict standards for their employees, this means that the coming months will be a big experiment. At a time that the oil sands have much bigger things to worry about, cannabis in the workplace may seem like small potatoes to some. But for workers in the field and everyone who cares about them, the relative lack of preparation for legal marijuana in Canada could have dire consequences if the industry can’t get onto the same page about workplace safety in a changing country.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • austin millbarge on October 18 2018 said:
    as someone who has worked in the field for the past 40 years i can tell you that zero tolerance does not mean zero use.

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