Drug-a-lysers to curb cannabis use

With the decriminalisation of cannabis in South Africa, traditional drug policies and testing for marijuana are insufficient. MARISKA MORRIS investigates how companies can effectively prevent cannabis use in the workplace

The Constitutional Court ruling to decriminalise the use of cannabis in South Africa has made it legal for a private individual to consume marijuana in a private place. This brings with it a host of challenges, as traditional policies and methods of testing for cannabis become outdated and ineffective.

“When cannabis was an illegal substance, a urine test was sufficient because the use of cannabis was a criminal offence,” explains Greg Kew, occupational medicine specialist. “After the Constitutional Court ruling, urine testing is now no longer enough as it can identify only use of cannabis, which is no longer a criminal offence.

“The results of a urine test can’t be used as a sanction for being under the influence without additional evidence that indicates the person was acting in a similar way to someone who is under the influence.” However, this doesn’t mean that the use of cannabis is acceptable in the workplace. Kew notes that the duty of employers to protect employees remains the same.

He says: “The duty of the employer is unaffected. In terms of the laws that protect the safety of employees, the employer is still required to prevent an incident from taking place as a consequence of someone being under the influence of an intoxicating substance, regardless of whether the intoxicating substance is legal or illegal.

“The use of cannabis might be legal, but if it is an intoxicating substance, its use is not acceptable in the workplace.” Thus, the employer still has the right to remove an intoxicated employee from the premises, test for intoxicating substances and take legal action if an incident occurs. For employers to exercise these rights, however, companies will need to revise their policies.

Drug policy for cannabis

As cannabis is no longer an illegal substance, companies are advised to approach it in a similar way to alcohol. There should be clear guidelines that prohibit the use while on company property or in the workplace. Employees should clearly understand that they can’t be under the influence while at work.

The company drug policy should include the actions that will be taken against an employee who is found to be under the influence. Companies should consider including finer points in their policy such as whether the employee will be allowed to have the substance in their possession while in the workplace.

Companies should also specify the concentration of cannabis found during the testing that will be tolerated and should indicate whether there will be a zero-tolerance approach. Information or training sessions can be held to explain the drug policy and to prevent use in the workplace.

Testing for cannabis

Along with updating company drug policies to make them more specific regarding the use of cannabis, businesses also need to update their method of testing for the substance. This requires a better understanding of how marijuana interacts with the body.

Traces of marijuana, or inactive cannabolites, can be found in the body for weeks after use. These inactive traces of the substance have no psychoactive impacts on the individual. It simply indicates that the individual has used the substance. Blood and urine tests generally only find these inactive cannabolites, which alone can’t demonstrate that the individual is under the influence.

“Don’t think a urine test has any link to the psychoactive substance and that it tests whether the person is under the influence. It does not,” Kew explains. Instead, companies should consider oral fluid testing, which screens for the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Luckily, there is equipment on the market to assist!


Oral fluid testing or saliva tests are a quick and easy way to determine whether an employee is under the influence of cannabis. GM of Runrite, Justin Goldblatt explains: “Saliva testing, while more expensive than urine testing, is a far more accurate way of determining immediate impairment. Companies need to protect staff and assets, not police lifestyle choices.

“If a person is under the influence of THC, a saliva test will show this, as there is a window period in which THC will show in the saliva and remain in the mouth cavity. Although cheaper, urine testing will not actually show the presence of THC in the individual if cannabis has been used within the preceding 12 hours. It can, however, show historical use for up to several days.”

Runrite can provide clients with its handheld mobile drug-testing device: Drugilizer. It was originally designed for the Australian police for roadside testing, but has since been launched commercially.

“This unit has undergone serious scrutiny by law enforcement to prove its accuracy and reliability, as well as its simplicity. All drug testing is based on existing bioenzyme test strips. Alcolizer has a large research and development team backed by several universities, which puts the company on the cutting edge of detection technology,” Goldblatt notes.

The results from the saliva test display on the device within 90 seconds – down from the original five minutes. Goldblatt adds: “The use of digital technology to display and record results means that test results can be easily shared and stored with various stakeholders without being tampered with or lost.”

While there are products available to assist with oral fluid testing, companies should also be aware of the challenges with this form of testing, including getting an accurate and big enough sample. Cannabis tends to dry out the mouth, which can make it difficult to get enough saliva for the test.

Acceptable levels of THC

Another big challenge is setting the acceptable limit of THC found during the test. There is no real guideline to determine the acceptable levels of THC found in an individual. Companies can take the zero-tolerance approach, but this, as with a zero-tolerance on alcohol, comes with its own challenges.

Kew recommends that the cut-off for oral fluid cannabis screening be set at around four nanograms per millilitre and two nanograms per millilitre for the confirmatory test.

Two nanograms per millilitre is said to be the equivalent of 0,5 g/l blood alcohol concentration. Companies should continue to test for the substance on a regular basis and provide employees with all required information to ensure they behave in a safe manner while in the workplace.

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