DENVER – The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday set a precedent with national implications after ruling that employers can fire employees for using medical marijuana off the job.
The unanimous decision affirms a lower-court ruling in a case that stems from former Dish Network employee Brandon Coats. Coats filed a case against Dish after he was fired in June 2010 from his job as a customer-service representative. Coats tested positive for marijuana during a random screening after legally using the drug to control muscle spasms. He is a quadriplegic who has been confined to a wheelchair since he was a teenager.
His attorneys pointed out that Coats never was impaired at work. They also highlighted that Dish is not a federal contractor. While medical marijuana use is protected under state law, the courts determined that the protection does not extend to employment situations because of a conflict with federal law.
“Although I’m very disappointed (Monday), I hope that my case has brought the issue of use of medical marijuana and employment to light,” Coats said after the ruling. “If we’re making marijuana legal for medical purposes, we need to address issues that come along with it, such as employment. Hopefully views on medical marijuana – like the ones in my specific case – will change soon.”
The courts looked at the state’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute, which generally prohibits employers from firing an employee based on engagement in lawful activities during nonworking hours and away from work.
The courts ruled that the language of the statute applies to both state and federal law. Both medical and recreational marijuana remain illegal under federal law. While marijuana legalization in Colorado provides a defense against prosecution, it does not make use a “lawful” activity, the courts opined.
“Employees who engage in an activity such as medical marijuana use that is permitted by state law but unlawful under federal law are not protected by the statute,” the 6-0 opinion stated.
“Nothing in the language of the statute limits the term ‘lawful’ to state law. Instead, the term is used in its general, unrestricted sense, indicating that a ‘lawful’ activity is that which complies with applicable ‘law,’ including state and federal law,” it continued.
Employers are allowed to set their own policies when it comes to marijuana use. For state employees, there is a universal policy on impairment stating that the use of intoxicating substances is prohibited. The state does not differentiate between alcohol, marijuana or any other drug.
The situation could change, however, if there is action on the federal level. Several pieces of legislation in Congress would prioritize state medical marijuana laws over federal law, but more sweeping efforts to legalize medical marijuana have been tougher to advance.
Business leaders hailed the Supreme Court’s ruling as offering certainty. Many courts and legislatures across the nation have been waiting on Colorado.
“If it is clearly stated in the policy-procedures manual up front, and you know what the rules of employment are, and you violate those rules, then that’s your choice, ” said Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce.
“We need to think of the ramifications had the ruling been switched around ...” added Tony Gagliardi, Colorado director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “This would have been felt all across the nation. From our standpoint, it puts certainty back on the employer’s rights.”
But Michael Evans, one of Coats’ attorneys, said that while the ruling does offer certainty, it comes at an extreme disadvantage to patients.
“(Monday’s) decision means that until someone in the House or Senate champions the cause, most employees who work in a state with the world’s most powerful (medical marijuana) laws will have to choose between using (medical marijuana) and work,” Coats said. “For people like Brandon Coats, there really isn’t a ‘choice.’”