The Bad News for Medical Marijuana Users in Colorado

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Chalk it up as a win for overbearing employers, anti-marijuana legalization advocates, and manufacturers of drug-testing kits: the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that employers can fire you for using medical marijuana.

In a decision that had been much-anticipated, the Court came down on the side of businesses that have zero-tolerance drug policies, saying that even if marijuana is used by employees with a medical need, taken off the clock, and in the comforts of their own homes, those workers can be fired for failing mandated drug tests.

The suit, which was filed by Brandon Coats against his former employer, Dish Network, had been gestating for the past nine months, though the firing in question actually occurred in 2010. Coasts was relieved of his duties by Dish Network after using marijuana, as prescribed by a medical professional, while he was not at work. Coats, according to the Denver Post, used medical cannabis to control leg spasms. Coats was in a car accident that resulted in him becoming a quadriplegic.

“[In] Colorado’s ‘lawful activities statute,’ the term ‘lawful’ refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law,” reads the Court’s opinion. “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.”

Essentially, the Court’s ruling came down to the fact that marijuana is still illegal under federal law, meaning that medical cannabis patients are not shielded from from firings.

The decision wasn’t even close. The Court’s ruling was unanimous, 6-0. What it does is set a precedent in a long-standing gray area, which may be bad news for medical marijuana patients across the country. Of course, other state courts may come to a different conclusion in similar cases, and the issue could possibly wind its way up to higher courts.

Even as Congress has started to come around on medical marijuana, along with President Obama, there are still some clear hold-outs in the private sector.

Dish Network, like many other businesses, has a vested interest in maintaining a drug-free workforce. The company has trucks and machinery that need to be operated by workers who are not under the influence of anything, even medical cannabis, so it’s not like its concerns are completely invalid when it comes to drug testing. But as we’re learning, drug testing and zero-tolerance policies often don’t benefit anyone, with the exception of companies that actually manufacture drug-testing kits.

There are solid arguments for actually getting rid of drug-testing altogether, with reasons as varied as inflated costs and the fact that a good deal of testing actually targets minorities and the poor. But again, Dish Network, or any other company for that matter, should be able to implement any drug policy they deem fit for their particular circumstances.

The question is, where do those policies start to bleed into employees’ private lives? And if employees don’t like it, are they faced with the simple choice of putting up with it, or quitting? For workers in Colorado, we now have an answer — even if the use of a legal substance (in Colorado’s case) is required to treat a medical condition.

Dish Network may actually be hurting itself by keeping its policy in place, by scaring away would-be employees and fresh, young talent that may not be too keen on working for a company that is rigid in its policy regarding marijuana. That goes for other businesses as well, although we won’t really have an idea if these policies are exacting a toll for a long while, if ever.

For Coats, though his defeat in court was clearly disappointing, the fact that our nation’s higher courts and legislators are even looking at this as a real, tangible issue is itself a victory. “Although I’m very disappointed today, I hope that my case has brought the issue of use of medical marijuana and employment to light,” Coats said in a statement released by his attorney’s firm.

“If we’re making marijuana legal for medical purposes we need to address issues that come along with it such as employment.”

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger

More from Business Cheat Sheet:

Want more great content like this? Sign up here to receive the best of Cheat Sheet delivered daily. No spam; just tailored content straight to your inbox.