Why we cover medical cannabis: One employer’s story

Focus Area — Human Resources


This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail on September 13, 2019. It’s written by Bill Howatt of the Conference Board of Canada and Wendy Mizuno of George Weston Limited.

The Conference Board of Canada and The Globe and Mail are partnering to explore the relationship between career success and cannabis use. Employers and employees (both recreational and medical cannabis users, as well as non-cannabis users) are invited to participate in this study. (Employees interested in taking the survey can click on this link. Employers interested in taking the survey can click on this link.) The data from these surveys will be aggregated and used to conduct analysis and create a report that will be presented Oct. 15, 2019, at a conference at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto.

Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at The Conference Board of Canada. Wendy Mizuno is the group head of pension and benefits at George Weston Limited.

Canadians have had a constitutional right to reasonable access to medical cannabis for two decades. But public sentiment has been slow to embrace cannabis as an effective treatment for serious conditions. Even as the number of Canadians registered to use medical cannabis increases, companies have been slow to cover medical cannabis in their employee benefits packages.

Flying in the face of that trend is food processing giant George Weston Limited., which decided to cover medical cannabis for more than 110,000 of its employees in 2017. In the process, the company also updated its fitness-for-work policies for alcohol or drug consumption to accommodate people who use medical cannabis.


Two factors prompted the company to consider covering medical cannabis. The first was the steady increase in the number of Canadians registering with Health Canada to access medical cannabis, most of whom were paying out of pocket. The second was recommendations from senior leadership and practising pharmacists within the George Weston organization. Their analysis of clinical research showed that medical cannabis is just as effective or more effective than other treatments for specific conditions.

The pharmacists also agreed that medical cannabis is especially promising for treating chronic pain. Uncontrolled pain is the most common cause of disability for working-age adults in Canada, which is costly not just for the person suffering, but also their communities.

So far, George Weston employees have been slow to make claims. The company says it plans to raise awareness of medical cannabis as a treatment option and to ensure employees know how to access their coverage.

A budget impact analysis and consideration of the average dosing levels for the conditions covered set the annual coverage maximum at $1,500. The company expects that the benefits to employees’ health, wellness and productivity will outweigh the cost of including medical cannabis in the drug plan.

The company is also hoping that their work will position them as a leader in this space, so that more companies will consider including medical cannabis under their drug plans.


Medical cannabis is not covered by drug plans to treat all conditions, in all cases and in any ingestion method. An authorization process ensures that coverage for medical cannabis is limited to the eligible conditions where there is strong enough evidence to support it. Prior authorization can also require the use of medical cannabis as a second-line therapy after other therapies are tried, and it can exclude coverage for dried cannabis flower since the active ingredient is also available in an oil format, for easy ingestion.


Everyone’s understanding of medical cannabis is still at an early stage – whether you are a clinical researcher, physician, benefits provider or patient. Yet we know enough to understand that medical cannabis holds promise, particularly for conditions where other treatments may be ineffective or unsafe. Perhaps the most important action for employers is to be part of the evolving landscape by testing the waters. Go slow, follow the evidence and consider how coverage can benefit both the organization and employees.

Dr. Bill Howatt

Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity

Wendy Mizuno

Head of Pension and Benefits at George Weston Limited.

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