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Holiday Parties in the Cannabis Age

End-of-year parties provide a perfect opportunity for organizations to thank their employees, and to create a strong sense of team.

End-of-year parties provide a perfect opportunity for organizations to thank their employees, and to create a strong sense of team. That said, if a party is held, employers need to make sure that high spirits don’t turn into high employees, or at least that those employees don’t engage in dangerous behaviour.

Historically, it has been suggested that employers who host an event where alcohol is served should take the following measures to ensure the safety of their employees:

  • Before the event, distribute the organization’s expectations, including that everyone is expected to act appropriately, consume alcohol responsibly and make plans for getting home safely if they intend to consume alcohol;
  • Limit the number of alcoholic beverages any one person can consume, for example through a ticket system, or by restricting "open bar" hours;
  • Have a licensed bartender serving alcohol, so partygoers can be monitored;
  • Have sufficient food available to avoid people drinking on an empty stomach;
  • Have a variety of non-alcoholic drinks available;
  • Close the bar an hour before the party ends;
  • Have taxi chits available to ensure everyone can get home safely;
  • Ensure someone in authority remains in a fit state, to monitor the partygoers; and
  • Have a plan to deal with anyone who tries to drive when he/she appears to be impaired.

The legalization of cannabis raises additional questions. What is an employer’s responsibility to monitor employees who bring their own cannabis to an employer’s party? Since the employer is not supplying the cannabis, should the employer be required to regulate it, and how can the employer control its use? What if someone leaves an employer’s social event impaired by cannabis, drives home and causes an accident? Is the employer liable? 

While the answers to these questions are not entirely clear at present, employers should consider in advance how they intend to address employees’ cannabis use at holiday parties.

Assuming the employer has not supplied the cannabis, the employer cannot monitor cannabis consumption in the same way as alcohol consumption, since the employer cannot be expected to limit an employee’s consumption of his/her own product, and the employer has no way of knowing the concentration of the drug that an employee is consuming.

That said, a hands-off approach is also not appropriate, since even social hosts can face liability for impaired driving, depending on the circumstances (see the recent BLG Alert on this issue). It is not a stretch to say an employer host could potentially face liability if they know of cannabis consumption at the party and do not take steps to ensure there is no impaired driving. This applies even if the employer does not directly supply the cannabis. This is particularly the case since it is possible that the employee will consume both his/her own cannabis as well as alcohol served by the host of the party, and therefore the impairment may be caused by multiple sources.

In light of these new social factors, the host recommendations listed above should continue to apply, but need to be updated to consider cannabis consumption. Employers should be clear in their policies that employees are expected to consume intoxicants responsibly, and those who are impaired (whether by alcohol or cannabis) are required to find alternate forms of transportation and not drive. Managers in attendance at the event should be told that if someone appears impaired or they are aware that someone has been consuming alcohol or cannabis, steps need to be taken to ensure the individual gets home safely.

Employers should dust off their Social Events Policies, and review them in light of the legalization of cannabis, to ensure that this year’s holiday party remains safe and fun for everyone.

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