Thanks to a landmark ruling in Colorado’s Supreme Court, there is new clarification to the state’s medical marijuana law—though employees may not like the news. If a workplace has a policy prohibiting drug use, workers who test positive for marijuana are not protected from termination—even if they are registered for medical use. In other words, you can be fired in Colorado for using marijuana during your time off.
This ruling comes after a lengthy legal battle for Brandon Coats, who was fired from Dish Network in 2010 when a random drug test detected the presence of THC. Because marijuana is permitted for both medical and recreational use in Colorado, Coats felt his doctor’s prescription would provide legal recourse under the state’s “Lawful Off-duty Activities Statute.” You Can Now Be Fired in Colorado for Using Medical Marijuana on Your Time Off
The court didn’t agree.
“The Supreme Court holds that under […] Colorado’s ‘lawful activities statute,’ the term ‘lawful’ refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law. 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,” states the ruling.
At the heart of the case is the lingering presence of THC in a person’s body. Though it’s possible to have a negative test result in as few as four days for an infrequent user, THC can remain present in the system for well over a month with habitual use. Consequently, a positive test doesn’t prove impairment on the job.
“Mr. Coats was never accused or suspected of being under the influence and received satisfactory performance reviews all three years [of his employment],” asserted his attorney, Michael Evans before the state Supreme Court last year. “He was fired after an unknown type or amount of THC was found after a mouth swab test. Dish knew he was a medical marijuana patient. The mere presence of THC is not proof of impairment.”
But to Dish Network and its zero-tolerance policy, “use”—not impairment—was the mitigating factor. Dish Network’s attorney Meghan Martinez argued, “We are alleging that he was using THC at the workplace. The definition of use is in the medical marijuana act. It’s the employment of something, the longstanding possession of something. He smoked marijuana while at home, but he crossed the threshold [to his office] with THC in his system. The use is the effects, it’s the THC, it’s the whole point of marijuana. So when he came to work, he was using.”
At 16 years old, Coats suffered a broken spinal cord in a car accident and is paralyzed over 80% of his body. He endured severe convulsions and spasms for years that prescription medication couldn’t effectively control. “Sometimes my whole body can just seize up,” he explained. Doctors eventually recommended marijuana and the result was dramatic—as it has been for many people for a variety of illnesses and injuries. After such positive results—coupled with legally sanctioned use in Colorado—the company’s decision to fire Coats seemed inexplicable to him.
Though Amendment 20, which legalized marijuana use in Colorado in 2000, states that employers aren’t required to “accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace,” it does not stipulate whether they have the right to terminate employees who partake while off-duty. Arizona is currently the only state that specifically prohibits firing registered users—as long as that job isn’t considered “safety sensitive.”
In an email to The Huffington Post about the ruling, Coats stated, “If we’re making marijuana legal for medical purposes we need to address issues that come along with it such as employment. Hopefully views on medical marijuana—like the ones in my specific case—will change soon.”
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Contributed by Claire Bernish of The Anti Media.