A medical marijuana patient in Colorado fired for flunking a drug test isn’t entitled to get his job back, even though marijuana is legal in the state, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday.
“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,” the court said in a brief statement. The ruling, affirming a lower court decision, could have implications across the nation.
The case is important for pot smokers and their employers in states where marijuana use has been legalized. Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational use of the drug in 2012, but almost half the states have legalized medical marijuana.
Quadriplegic Brandon Coats was fired by Dish Network after the call-center worker failed a drug test in 2010. The company cited its zero-tolerance drug policy but did acknowledge there was no evidence Coats was high on the job.
Coats said he never hid his off-duty medical marijuana use from his bosses. Instead, he argued, his three years of outstanding performance showed he was a responsible worker who used pot nightly to help control seizures and spasms.
Dish argued Coats violated the company’s zero-tolerance drug policy and said he was treated no differently than an employee who shows up drunk. The two sides made oral arguments before the Colorado Supreme Court in September.
The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, can remain in the bloodstream for weeks — long after the effects of the drug have vanished.
Coats brought his lawsuit against the company under Colorado’s lawful off-duty activities law, which says employers cannot fire people for doing something legal on their own time. The law originally protected cigarette smokers, among others, and predates the state’s legalization of marijuana.
Coats asked the court to consider whether marijuana use, be it medical or recreational, is “lawful” in Colorado. The court held that under the lawful activities statute, “the term ‘lawful’ refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law.”
Courts in California, Montana and Washington state also have rejected claims by medical marijuana patients who lost their jobs after failing drug tests.
SOURCE: USA Today – John Bacon, Trevor Hughes