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Employers in British Columbia Ensure Safety During Opioid Decriminalization

A bag of white powder and a cigarette on a black background.

​Employers in British Columbia play an important role in educating employees about both the decriminalization of illegal drugs, including opioids, and the fact that they will not tolerate possession in the workplace, experts say.  

In a pilot project effective from Jan. 31, 2023, to Jan. 31, 2026, the British Columbia (B.C.) government has decriminalized the possession of small quantities of cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy, as well as opioids such as heroin, fentanyl and morphine, in Canada's West Coast province.

Decriminalization is not legalization—these drugs will remain illegal in the province during the three-year period, according to the B.C. government.

"The decriminalization of people who are in possession of drugs for personal use is one additional important step to save lives as we continue to tackle the toxic drug crisis in B.C.," said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, in a statement.

More than 11,000 people have died from overdoses across the province since health officials declared a public health emergency on drug toxicity in 2016, reported the B.C. government.

By removing barriers—like criminal records that make it difficult for Canadians to find work—decriminalization aims to improve access to social services, explained Emily Biggar, research and policy analyst at the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) in Ottawa, Ontario.

"Ultimately, reducing these harms and increasing access to care can improve individuals' health and productivity, which is of benefit to both workers and their employers," she said.

This situation is different from the legalization of cannabis in Canada, said Geoffrey Howard, founder of Howard Employment Law in Vancouver, B.C.

"Employers in B.C. will continue to ban possession of illicit drugs because they have an obligation to keep their employees safe," he added.

Advice for Safe and Productive Workplaces

Companies in B.C. should communicate clear workplace policies and practices on substance use like they did with cannabis, experts say.

"Employers may share information and educate employees about what is covered under B.C.'s decriminalization legislation—such as the removal of criminal sanctions related to small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use—and how this relates to or differs from its existing workplace substance use policy," Biggar said.

Some companies in B.C. may opt to update drug and alcohol policies to reflect decriminalization, stated Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver.

"One way to phrase this is: 'Despite government regulations loosening, we will not allow illicit substances in the workplace,' " she said.

Employers and human resource professionals should also take this opportunity to check in with employees about their mental and physical health, Pau noted.

"Make sure employees are aware of resources, like counseling and employee assistance services, available in their community," she said. "If they are struggling or not fit to work, then refer them confidentially to doctors for treatment and rehabilitation."

WorkSafeBC, the province's workers' compensation insurer, has created opioid outreach and education training sessions for physicians, pharmacists and nurse practitioners to provide individual treatment alternatives for workers with chronic pain or substance use issues.

"Companies may also consider adapting information, education and programs available to employees in a way that is consistent with a health-based approach to substance use," Biggar said. "This could include education on reducing substance use stigma in the workplace."

The Canada Labor Code does not address drug and alcohol use in the workplace.

Employers in Canada should seek legal counsel when it comes to employment drug testing, Pau noted.

Support for Trades Workers

Workers in the construction, trades and transport industries often experience work-related injuries because of physically demanding jobs. They may take opioids and other substances for pain relief, according to the Canadian government.

"The risks are much higher in trades work and the construction industry," Howard said. "It is worth it for employers in these industries to clarify their company policies."

The CCSA, in collaboration with Health Canada's Opioid Response Team, has devised a toolkit for supervisors, human resource professionals, and unions to improve health and safety in the workplace around issues related to substance use.

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia.


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