COLORADO HIGH COURT DEEMS USE OF LEGAL MARIJUANA VALID GROUND FOR TERMINATION

On Monday, June 15, the Colorado Supreme Court released its opinion in Coats v. Dish Network, affirming a lower court’s decision to uphold the firing of an employee for using medical marijuana even though the use occurred while the employee was off-duty.  In a decision likely having national significance, the Court ruled that Dish did not improperly terminate Coats, who tested positive in 2010 for tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana) in a random, company-issued drug test. The plaintiff, 35-year-old Brandon Coats, is a quadriplegic medical marijuana patient who used the drug as a means of treating violent spasms and seizures suffered since being injured in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down.  Although Coats engaged in the use of medical marijuana “off-duty,” Dish maintains a “no tolerance” policy with regard to drug use and terminated Coats’s employment subsequent to the positive test result.

Under Colorado law, it is considered discriminatory “for an employer to terminate the employment of any employee due to that employee’s engaging in any lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours.”  As such, Coats brought suit arguing that his termination was discriminatory on the basis that his actions were within the legal confines of Colorado law—one of twenty-three states that has legalized the use of medical marijuana.  Conversely, Dish argued that because marijuana is still illegal under federal laws, use of medical marijuana is not a lawful activity intended for protection under Colorado state laws.

The Court rejected Coat’s argument holding that a business can permissibly terminate an employee for using medical marijuana even if the employee is off-duty and abiding by the laws of the state.     In rendering its decision, the Colorado Supreme Court has set a precedent for employers nation-wide with regard to marijuana use while highlighting the divide between state laws and federal law as the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes is becoming more prevalent.

Worthy of note in the Court’s opinion was the Court’s hesitance to address Colorado’s laws regarding the legal use of recreational marijuana, instead focusing on its use for medical purposes.  Furthermore, a pivotal piece in the Court’s decision hinged on the applicable Colorado statute that neglects to define whether an activity is “lawful.”  Thus, the Court determined that Coats’s use of medical marijuana cannot be considered lawful as it violates federal drug laws.

The issuance of the Court’s decision provides some insight and guidance into what has become a very tricky landscape in which employers are dealing with the inevitable consequences of changes to state laws—laws such as the one in Colorado, which has made the use of marijuana permissible for recreational purposes in spite of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s classification of pot as an illegal Schedule I substance.  With this decision, some clarity exists for the time being for employers as they continue to amend and adapt their internal drug policies to the changes in law.