One reason for a drug-free workplace policy is employee safety. But how do the growing number of state medical marijuana laws factor into this?
Another state court has weighed in on the matter.
Brandon Coats worked for Dish Network in Colorado.
Coats was paralyzed as a teenager in a car crash. He has been a medical marijuana patient in Colorado since 2009. He was fired in 2010 for failing a company drug test. Dish Network conducts random employee drug tests. It didn’t claim Coats was impaired on the job. Dish gave no other reason for the firing.
Coats says he used marijuana within the state license, never used it on Dish Network premises and was never under the influence at work.
Claiming it violated the Colorado Civil Rights Act which prohibits an employer from firing an employee for “engaging in any lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours,” Coats filed a lawsuit against Dish.
Dish claimed use of medical marijuana wasn’t lawful activity because it was prohibited under federal law.
A trial court agreed with Dish and threw out Coats’ lawsuit which led to his appeal to a higher state court.
How does federal law impact case?
Coats acknowledged to the Colorado Court of Appeals that marijuana use, even with a state medical-use license, is against federal law.
However he argued that his use was lawful because it is allowed under state law and federal law didn’t apply.
The court didn’t agree.
It said for any activity to be lawful in Colorado, it must be lawful under both state and federal laws. So, an activity that violates federal law but complies with state law can’t be lawful in the state.
The appeals court also noted that if the legislature wanted to insulate employees from being fired for activities that are illegal under federal law, it could have done so, but didn’t. Bills to do just that have been introduced in California. However, two times so far the bills haven’t had sufficient support to become law.
So, since Coats’ use of medical marijuana under a state license was — and still is — illegal under federal law, it could not be considered lawful activity. Coats’ lawsuit was thrown out.
The appeals court’s decision was split. One of the three judges dissented, basically agreeing with Coats that whether his marijuana use was legal or not should be measured only by state law.
Coats’ lawyer says they will try to take the case to the Colorado Supreme Court.
Colorado isn’t alone
Colorado made news recently because the state also approved recreational use of marijuana.
In another state where that was done, Washington, courts have also ruled that employers can fire medical pot users.
A Michigan court ruled Wal-Mart was allowed to fire an employee who was permitted to have medical marijuana.
Some states make it slightly more difficult to fire employees who have tested positive for marijuana. In several states, the employer must prove the employee was impaired by the marijuana use for the firing to be legal.
So it appears, overall, that the growing number of laws that allow marijuana use — whether for medical or recreational purposes — don’t change the situation for employers, at least not much. Companies can have zero-tolerance drug-use policies, including those for safety reasons. And employers can enforce these policies by firing employees who violate them. As is the case with all company rules regarding employee conduct, a key is to apply the policies equally to all workers.
What do you think of the Colorado court’s ruling? Should employers be able to fire workers for marijuana use, even if they have a medical license to use it? Should the company have to show that the employee was impaired at work before being able to fire the person? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
(Brandon Coats v. Dish Network, Colorado Court of Appeals, No. 12CA0595, 4/25/13)