The Colorado Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday that an employer with a zero-tolerance drug policy is not required to reinstate an employee who is a medical marijuana user, even though pot is legal in the state.
“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,” the court said.
The employee, Brandon Coats, was fired by Dish Network in 2010 after he tested positive in a random screen. Coats, who is quadriplegic, said he uses marijuana during non-work hours to help control seizures and spasms and that his three years of outstanding performance showed he was a responsible employee. The company acknowledged there was no evidence he was impaired on the job.
Coats brought his lawsuit against the company under Colorado’s off-duty activities law, which says employers cannot fire people for doing something legal on their own time. The law originally protected cigarette smokers, among others, and predates the state’s legalization of marijuana.
The ruling, affirming a lower court decision, could have implications across the nation. Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia. In Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, private recreational use is allowed. However, marijuana sales and use are illegal under federal law. Courts in California, Montana and Washington state also have rejected claims by medical marijuana users who lost their jobs after testing positive.