The mixture of medical marijuana and employment just got a lot murkier in Colorado. The state’s Supreme Court ruled that an employee can be fired for using medical marijuana because it’s, well, illegal.
That’s the basic reasoning behind the decision handed down on June 15. The problem is that medical marijuana use is legal under Colorado state law, but it’s not legal under federal law. According to U.S. News & World Report, “Colorado law generally protects employees from being fired for ‘lawful’ activities off the job, but does not define whether a behavior needs to be lawful under state or federal law.”
Brandon Coats, 34, was fired from Dish Network in 2010. A paraplegic, he uses medical marijuana to control leg spasms. He was legally using medical marijuana, but Dish fired him after a random drug test because federal law does not permit the use of medical marijuana.
Coats then sued for protection under the state law. “[W]e find nothing to indicate that the General Assembly intended to extend [state law’s] protection for ‘lawful’ activities to activities that are unlawful under federal law,” the judges wrote, according to U.S. News.
You can read the court’s decision here.
Here’s exactly what the justices said, according to the decision: “The supreme court holds that … [in] Colorado’s ‘lawful activities statute,’ the term ‘lawful’ refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law. Therefore, 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.”
U.S. News reports that state marijuana laws “are remarkably diverse, and protections for patients also are a mixed bag.” It cites a state-by-state chart from the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C. advocacy group.
Arizona, Delaware and Minnesota provide the most protection for employees. “Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New York, and Rhode Island also have some anti-discrimination protection for medical pot patients, though they do not specifically address drug testing,” the article adds.
A perusal of the Marijuana Policy Project’s chart shows that states provide protection to places dependent on federal funding. Pot smoking for any reason, even medical, is not allowed if it can jeopardize federal funding.
According to the Associated Press, via the Boston Herald, Colorado became at least the fourth state to rule against medical marijuana patients fired for pot use. “Supreme courts in California, Montana, and Washington state have made similar rulings, and federal courts in Colorado and Michigan also have rejected such claims,” the article says.
The AP article also quotes a Dish spokesperson on the ruling. “As a national employer, Dish remains committed to a drug-free workplace and compliance with federal law,” company spokesman John Hall said in a statement.
According to Time magazine, this is the fifth time in seven years state courts have ruled against medical marijuana users when it comes to employment. Employees can be fired for failing drug tests, regardless of the reason the marijuana is being used.
The Time article says, “Although the case is limited to Colorado, the court’s decision has national ramifications. Previous cases in California, Montana, Oregon, and Washington all swung for the employer, but the Colorado case was seen as the best chance for a ruling in favor of medical marijuana patients — and not just because of the state’s embrace of medical and recreational pot.” Coats, paralyzed because of a car accident when he was a teen, was seen as a sympathetic plaintiff, but that rarely holds sway in legal appellate decisions.
There is a step employers can take, though, to make the use of marijuana permissible in the workplace. They just need to stop testing for it. People who use medical marijuana need to know before employment where a potential employer stands on the issue. Apparently, many hospitality-industry employers have stopped testing for THC, the main chemical in marijuana.
The ultimate decider on this issue will be the U.S. Supreme Court, if it somehow decides to strike down federal laws on medical marijuana use. Without that protection, and as long as individual employers still test for marijuana usage, few states are going to provide protection for medical marijuana users.