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Colorado Supreme Court to Decide Whether Marijuana Use is Lawful
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Colorado Supreme Court to Decide Whether Marijuana Use is Lawful

Summary: The Colorado Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week as to whether an employee could be fired for using medical marijuana, centering on whether such use of the drug was lawful.

The highest court in Colorado will determine whether an employee can be terminated from his job for using marijuana outside of the workplace, according to USA Today. The case, which will have implications nationwide, involves DISH Network employee Brandon Coats.


The lawsuit was filed under Colorado’s lawful off-duty activities law. This law states that employers cannot fire employees for doing something legal on their own time. This law has protected many employees, including cigarette smokers. The law was enacted before Colorado legalized marijuana.

In 2010, Coats was fired from his call-center job after he tested positive for marijuana. However, Coats is partially paralyzed and must use a wheelchair, and has a prescription for medical marijuana. Coats argued that he never hid his medical marijuana from his employers. In fact, he boasts that his three years of “outstanding performance” demonstrate that he was a responsible worker. He used marijuana after work each night to control his seizures and spasms.

DISH responded that Coats’ positive drug test violated DISH’s zero-tolerarance drug policy. DISH stated Coats was treated no different than an employee who happened to show up to work drunk. Oral arguments were heard in the Colorado Supreme Court on Tuesday.

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The chemical properties of marijuana further complicate the issue. Detectable levels of marijuana can stay in a user’s body for more than a month after consumption. Clearly, this is long after the intoxicating effects of marijuana have passed. If the Colorado Supreme Court upholds lower court holdings, it may remove protections workers have for using legal substances in the state. Coats said, “If I can fight this fight in order to change that, that’s what I’ll do.”

The court must now determine whether marijuana use, medical or recreational, is “lawful” under Colorado law. The court’s decision, whether it decides marijuana use is lawful or is not lawful, will set a precedent that will reach businesses and employees nationwide.

Twenty-three states, as well as the District of Columbia, have legalized medical marijuana in some fashion. Colorado and Washington state have legalized recreational use as well. Under federal law, marijuana remains illegal. Curtis Graves, an employment expert with the Mountain States Employers Council, said that until federal law legalizes marijuana, employees are not well protected for using the substance if their employers disagree with it.

Graves said, “The writing’s on the wall: I suspect that within a few years, marijuana is going to make that transition and be treated like alcohol, and employers are going to have to deal with it. At some point, we’re going to have to come up with a better scheme. This case will settle it, but it will only be temporary.”

DISH takes the position that because Coats knew about the zero-tolerance drug policy and chose to come to work with marijuana in his system, the company had the right to fire him. They also argue that marijuana is illegal under federal law, so Coats deserves no special treatment. Meghan Martinez, attorney for DISH, said, “It doesn’t matter if he’s impaired or not. Medical marijuana is not lawful in Colorado…therefore it cannot be a lawful activity.” The Colorado Attorney General’s office has also taken DISH’s position.

Michael Evans, Coats’ attorney, said clarification is definitely needed due to the confusion over which law, state or federal, takes precedent when states have legalized marijuana. Evans argued to the court that Coats was working in a non-hazardous, non-executive position in the Colorado-based company. He was never accused of being impaired on the job, Evans added.

Evans argued, “We’re getting very confusing and mixed messages from everywhere. We know this is not going away. We need to get this clarified. Let’s not put our head in the sand, and (let’s) deal with this reasonably.”

The court took the oral arguments under advisement. It will issue a written ruling at a later date.

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