In a case with important implications for employers in states where medical and recreational use of marijuana is legal, the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that it is lawful to fire an employee who legally uses marijuana for medicinal purposes.
The rationale: Even though medical marijuana is legal in Colorado, the drug remains illegal under federal law.
Brandon Coats, a former Dish Network customer service rep, uses marijuana to control spasms and seizures resulting from a car accident that left him paralyzed. He was fired in 2010 under the company’s zero-tolerance drug policy after testing positive for having pot in his system.
He sued, arguing that since medical and recreational use of the drug is legal in Colorado, his firing was illegal under the state’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute.
Two lower courts and now the state Supreme Court ruled against Coats because marijuana is still listed as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Thus, although medical use of marijuana is legal in Colorado and 22 other states, it remains illegal under federal law.
The state Supreme Court concluded, “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 Colorado’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute.
Advice: The decision in Coats v. Dish Network (No. 13C394, Colorado Supreme Court, 2015) is certain to inform judicial thinking in other states where medical and recreational use of marijuana is legal. If you operate in one of those states, consult your attorney about the implications of this case.
Regardless of state law, employers can still set strict drug-use policies for their employees and punish those who fail drug tests. Colorado marijuana legalization law explicitly says, “Nothing in this (law) is intended to require an employer to permit or to accommodate (marijuana’s) use ... or to affect the ability of employers to have policies restricting the use of marijuana by employees.”