Safety and OSHA News

Court: Companies can fire employees who use medical marijuana

Slowly, more courts are dealing with the issues involving medical or recreational marijuana and the workplace. The most recent ruling can be seen as a win for employers. 

The Colorado Supreme Court says Dish Network didn’t violate state law by firing a quadriplegic employee who had a legal state license to consume medical marijuana.

Coats has been confined to a wheelchair since he was a teenager. From 2007 to 2010 he worked for Dish as a telephone customer service representative. In 2009, he obtained a state-issued license to use medical marijuana to treat painful muscle spasms.

In a random drug screening in May 2010, Coats tested positive for a component of medical marijuana. He told Dish he was a registered medical marijuana patient and planned to continue using pot. Dish fired Coats on June 7, 2010.

Coats filed a wrongful termination claim against Dish, claiming it violated a Colorado law which prohibits employers from firing an employee for “lawful activities” off the premises of the employer during non-work hours. He says he used the pot within the terms of his state license, never used it on Dish premises and was never under the influence at work.

Dish argued that, even though Colorado law allowed medical marijuana, it was still illegal under federal law.

A trial court dismissed Coats’ claim. It rejected his argument that the Medical Marijuana Amendment made his use a lawful activity under the state’s employment law.

A state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. Coats appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Lawful means lawful

In its decision announced this week, the state’s highest court found, “The term ‘lawful’ as it is used in [state employment law] is not restricted in any way … therefore an activity such as medical marijuana use that is unlawful under federal law is not a ‘lawful’ activity under [state law].”

The court noted that the federal government’s Controlled Substances Act lists marijuana as a Schedule I substance, meaning the law designates it as having no medical accepted use, a high risk of abuse and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision.

So Coats’ use of medical marijuana wasn’t legal under federal law, and it wasn’t a protected activity under Colorado employment law.

The law and safety

Washington, DC and 23 states allow the use of medical marijuana. Four states allow recreational marijuana. How does this impact drug-free workplace policies and employee safety?

When dish fired Coats, it didn’t claim he was impaired on the job. Marijuana use was against the company’s policy.

The decision in the Colorado case is in line with court rulings in other states, including Michigan and Washington.

However, some states require the employer to prove the employee was impaired by the marijuana use for the firing to be legal.

So these court decisions don’t change a lot for companies. Employers can have zero-tolerance drug policies, including those for safety reasons. Employers can enforce these policies by firing employees who violate them. Two keys are that the policies be applied equally to all employees and that proper documentation is maintained.

What do you think about this case? Are you concerned more these days about employees’ drug use and workplace safety because of the increasing number of states allowing medical and/or recreational marijuana use? Has your company changed its employee drug policy recently? Let us know in the comments.

(Coats v. Dish Network, Colorado Supreme Court, No. 13SC394, 6/15/15)

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