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Cannabis & Main: 'Our Drug-Testing Process Is Basically Broken At This Point'

On the latest instalment of Civilized's new podcast 'Cannabis & Main,' host Ricardo Baca chatted with Alison McMahon - Founder and CEO of the cannabis-focused staffing agency Cannabis at Work. Ricardo and Alison discussed the growth of the cannabis industry, problems with our current drug-testing process and ways to navigate the cannabis issue in the workplace.

Check out the full podcast below or download it for free through iTunes, Spotify or Stitcher.

Transcript: 'Cannabis & Main' Episode 104, “Cannabis & Careers”

Ricardo Baca: My guest today is Alison McMahon, who is CEO and founder of Cannabis at Work, a cannabis-focused staffing agency. Alison, thank you so much for joining us on Cannabis & Main.

Alison McMahon: Happy to be here.

Ricardo Baca: Where are you coming to us from?

Alison McMahon: I'm based in Edmonton, Alberta. That's where our head office is and we have team members across the country.

Ricardo Baca: We're so glad to have you on here. What a fascinating time in which we live. Because, right now, tens of thousands of individuals are choosing cannabis as their chosen profession, as their career path, and many of them are putting personal relationships at risk or isolating themselves from family by choosing to follow this calling. What do you think it is about this industry that is drawing such a varied base of people who want to work in this desperately? They're dying to work in cannabis.

Alison McMahon: Yeah, I think that there are a lot of people who interacted with cannabis - whether it was when they younger or if they've continued to use and interact with cannabis -  that have always questioned the illegality of it. Now our government and many institutions are starting to say, "Ahh, we're changing our mind about this, and this is actually going to be a legal substance, it's actually going to impact our economy.” I think there's a lot of people who are like, "Heck yeah! That's how I felt about this for years."

And so there's an opportunity for people to step into that. I think it's also really, really easy to see the business opportunity here. And if you look, you can see the huge medical benefits this has for individuals. I think when Canadians are given the opportunity to look cannabis legalization, see all those different parts of it, it's starts to be a no-brainer for a lot of people.

Ricardo Baca: And, I'm guessing that number of jobs that are available is about to explode exponentially, because right now, of course, you guys have an incredibly robust medical market and an export market, but even then it's not really store-based, and it never has been, at least on the legal market.

Alison McMahon: Right               .

Ricardo Baca: There's lots of gray market shops. But, do you have any idea… is there any statistic out there that speaks to how this is about to blow up?

Alison McMahon: Yeah, it's interesting. It's hard to get an exact number. I've heard that Stats Canada, for example, is starting to collect data about this industry, but we really haven't had a lot of formal channels of data collection and reporting on those items. From my vantage point and from our experience, the cool thing is that job creation is real in this industry. We're experiencing it every day. So, for example, there are jobs that we're seeing [like] regional level directors of business development that might work for a licensed producer and then be responsible for liaising with the provincial regulator and the retailers around supply chain. Those jobs that we're recruiting for today didn't exist in the market a few months ago.

And we've seen some of the retail jobs in Ontario, but now we're starting to see Alberta, which has had their cannabis framework in place for a while, starting to have some of those retail jobs come to fruition. And then, in addition to that, it seems like practically every licensed producer has plans for a million square foot greenhouse expansion - the cultivation side of this is not going away, in any way. In fact, that's probably one of the areas we see some supply and demand issues around talent - more so on the cultivation side right now.

Ricardo Baca: Oh really? Like, issues of there not being enough of an educated, experienced workforce that can jump in and work alongside their colleagues in a large-scale commercial cultivation facility?

Alison McMahon: Yeah, and it's partly a result of our regulations. In Canada, there has to be security-cleared individuals in a production facility in order to be around cannabis – so, that's the plants, that's the vault, that's extraction - there needs to be enough security-cleared people that's operationally efficient. And when we look at the talent we have in Canada — people who've grown in the black or gray market for many years, often they can't get security cleared. And so, the people we do have in this country who might have that skill set, potentially have barriers to actually getting into the industry. And then, the rest of the population. There might be people who have done some other plant production work, that would have transferrable skill sets, or might have education in plant biology and those kind of things. Where they can enter in? We don't in this country have this workforce of people who know how to grow and interact with cannabis.

Ricardo Baca: Obviously, we [in Colorado] have a head start on this. And, inevitably, Canada has used a lot of the Colorado model and some of what Washington did and it's ultimately a hodgepodge of regulations from different parts of the US and South America and, of course, making its own. But I'm curious - with your business model, have you gone down to the U.S., have you done any research?

Alison McMahon: I have spent time in some of the US markets. It's interesting, the similarities, but also the differences. To be frank, it's actually the differences that strike me the most.

Ricardo Baca: Sure

Alison McMahon: I think it's really fascinating to see where you have had these adult-use markets in place for a period of time, really what consumer trends end up being, and what's the product categories that end up leading. And how can that inform what we're going to see in Canada? It'll be fascinating to see if it's the same or if it's different in the end. But when, in context of my business, a couple things: one, is that we have a ton of inbound demand, as we've been talking about, from people who want to get into this industry.

Part of the conversation is, "What can I do to get my foot in the door? What course can I take?" So, we actually looked to a lot of the affordable training that was coming out of the US and said, "Is there someone we can partner with, something we can offer that's already been created, (and bring it) into our market?" And the answer was "no," actually. When we wanted to make training courses that were affordable — people could get a certificate of completion, put it on their resume, and ultimately do better in an interview with a base of knowledge — there's enough differences between the Canadian and the US regulatory environment that it was really, really hard to just pull that content across the border. So, that was something specifically for us where we had to make content that was either kind of country agnostic or, more Canadian in focus

Another part of what we do in our business is a lot of education for employers in general - outside of the cannabis industry - on cannabis legalization, and what that means in terms of having an employee that has a medical authorization, or adult use, and how that impacts drug and alcohol policy. And so, that's another area where it's actually quite different in the US. The way that your employment laws are structured, the way you can do drug testing, and the way you can terminate based on drug testing. In many cases is quite different than our approach, where there's human rights protection for employees with a medical authorization. Our drug testing is much more limited. Really only for safety-sensitive positions.

Ricardo Baca: Yeah, there's no random drug testing -

Alison McMahon: That's right.

Ricardo Baca: Wow.

Alison McMahon: Yeah, so there's actually quite a few differences that make it hard for me to just port over the knowledge from the US.

Ricardo Baca: Given your line of work, I'm fairly positive that you're familiar with the Colorado State Supreme Court case with Brandon Coats, who is a paraplegic cannabis patient who told his employer that he was a cannabis patient and that really helped him deal with the day-to-day aches and pains and worse, of everything he was dealing with being wheelchair bound and of course, got shut down at the initial court and the second court and then ultimately, it went to the State Supreme Court and they ruled against him and on behalf of employers. I guess, as an employment professional, what's your take on the Supreme Court's ruling on that? Because there's not a lot of precedence in this space and right now. At least in the US, that is precedent. So what's your take on it? Of course employers have to protect themselves, as well.

Alison McMahon: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that case, where somebody so obviously has medical conditions, and it's not like somebody's saying their back hurts, this is a paraplegic individual, right?

Ricardo Baca: Right.

Alison McMahon: I think it's unfortunate that the answer is simply just “no.” I would expect for somebody like that....There's already a lot of barriers to employment, and then the thing that actually medically helps this person becomes the other barrier to their employment. That's why, I think it's great, the protections that Canadian employees have. Now, it's not without its own challenges and again, there are going to be scenarios - if we're talking about a safety-sensitive environment - where somebody isn't necessarily going to have the same liberties that another employee might have. But, it really undermines, I think, the medical system if employees don't have some of these protections around using their medications.

Now, perhaps that's part of the difference. In the US [cannabis] being a scheduled one drug and by definition not having any medical value, you can kinda take a different approach. But, I also think what's interesting if we look more internationally, countries like Australia tend to be much more pro-employee in terms of how they approach some of their workplace legislation. So, it'll be interesting when we talk about some of these other international players that might be the next ones - Australia, Germany, if their approach to employment legislation is a little bit more in line with Canada's, then we might start to see this more global trend towards the same type of protections. And it'll be interesting to see what pressure, if at all, that puts on the United States and their approach.

Ricardo Baca: It reminds me of one advantage we have in the Colorado marketplace versus other states. And that comes down to impaired driving, which is a kind of similar thing, determining intoxication. The general demarcation line in the US is if you have five nanograms of activated THC per milliliter of blood in blood test, then you are technically under the influence.

Alison McMahon: Right.

Ricardo Baca: We know this is garbage and meaningless, but at the very least in Colorado, that means it's a conversation in court, whereas in Washington, it's an automatic citation for stoned driving. I think that we're starting to see a variance. A multitude, different shades of regulatory policy and it's good, because hopefully people who do this in the future, like you're saying.

Alison McMahon: It's a problem when somebody can consume cannabis on a Friday and go to work on a Monday and fail a drug test and have potentially their livelihood challenged for that reason. So, we're starting to see a shift in the employers that we talk to, who have traditionally done probably a lot more urine testing and then we've got the potentially 30-day window issue, longer detection of the metabolite versus an oral swab, which has a shorter window of detection. So we're actually starting to see a trend, even within safety-sensitive sectors to employers saying, "Tell us more about this swab." Because they don't want their employee — who's a perfectly good employee — they don't want to have to lose that employee and rehire somebody else. Because, again, somebody wanted to consume cannabis on a Friday night and now it's Monday. So, we are starting to see a trend in that direction as well.

The challenge is that unfortunately, none of the drug testing technology we have is particularly good. Even the swabs are not without their false positives. The technology is not perfect by any stretch, so there are options that employers can look at to mitigate some of those challenges, but it's not a perfect world. Our drug-testing process is basically broken at this point.

Ricardo Baca: It's important. We had some interesting things happen when we were creating 'The Cannabist' at The Denver Post. Inevitably I secured certain protections for myself when I first got the job because I was like , "Oh, I'm going to be consuming and talking about it, and writing about it, and you would have the grounds to fire me.” So we put that into writing.  We had some other personnel issues that needed to be cleared up in the years that followed, but I'm thankful to at least have had that experience. Now, I own my own business and just created our first ever employee handbook, which was a great milestone, a really boring experience.

Alison McMahon: Congratulations.

Ricardo Baca: Thank you. Necessary. My favorite part though, was the drugs part. I went over it with a fine-toothed comb with my attorney to make sure it represented my views on sensible drug policy and responsible drug usage, and it was so great to - it feels good to hand that to an employee and say, "I get it, and I'm trusting you, and I know I can trust you." And also, there would be no way in Hell we would ever punish anybody for using this responsibly in your own free time.

Alison McMahon: That's right, yeah. And it'll be interesting to see. We do a lot of work with safety-sensitive employers and so, obviously, there are still restrictions around cannabis use in certain scenarios and obviously a restriction on impairment in the workplace, but it will be interesting to see some of the non safety-sensitive businesses. I mean, your example, is of that, and even my own business as what will these policies evolve to in context of allowing cannabis to be used like any other recreational substance.

Ricardo Baca: Exactly. Yeah, we have something generally in state laws called the “off-duty consumption acts” or something. It basically says of course you can have a drink when you're not at work, and if you're at work and you're still feeling the effects of that drink of alcohol, then we have a problem. But otherwise, we're good. But, in the state of Colorado, right now, because of federal illegality, cannabis does not apply to that certain sector of the law.

Alison McMahon: Yeah.

Ricardo Baca: I want to ask you to share some general advice. If [our audience] wants to work in cannabis, what are steps they can take to get to that point?

Alison McMahon: I think that there's a lot of hype around the cannabis industry and a lot of talk in the media about how fast it's growing. All those things are true, but that doesn't mean that this industry is any less picky about the talent entering the sector, and we still want the best of the best and we are the best of the best, right?

Ricardo Baca: Absolutely.

Alison McMahon: So, I think that it's the “do your homework” side of the conversation. You need to understand what the ACMPR is in Canada - they're our medical regulations. You need to understand what Bill C45 in The Cannabis Act is. You should probably understand some history of how the medical regulations have evolved in Canada and what some of the key cases were that have impacted this industry and how it's rolled out. I think making sure that you've done a little bit of that background so you can speak, at least intelligently, even if it's a basic level, to the industry is really important. And that can be done through a variety of ways. I mean, you can research online, there's some accessible, affordable online courses all the way up to post-secondary institution. I think we'll continue to see education around cannabis in Canada kind of evolve out in these different strata, so there's different entry points for people depending on what they're looking for.

And then, the other side of it is, get involved. Volunteer at an event like the World Cannabis Congress or other events. There are tons of events happening across the country and more and more of them all the time.

Ricardo Baca: I love it. Alison McMahon, CEO and founder of Cannabis at Work, thank you so much for joining us.

Alison McMahon: Thank you. It was fun.


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