In a closely watched workplace lawsuit, the Colorado Supreme Court, in one of the country’s most marijuana friendly states, ruled that smoking marijuana off the job and away from work can still get an employee fired.
By way of brief background, Brandon Coats was fired from Dish Network in 2010 after testing positive for marijuana in a random drug test. Coats allegedly used marijuana to help soothe painful spasms he has suffered with since a car accident left him paralyzed. Coats’s lawyers argued that his medical marijuana use should have been covered by a Colorado law used mainly to protect smokers from being fired. It says that employers may not fire workers for “any lawful activity” outside the workplace. Consequently, workers fired in violation of the law can sue for civil damages. Coats allegedly had a medical marijuana card from the state, and said he smoked only at home and that his use did not affect his job performance as a customer service representative.
Interestingly, the Colorado Supreme Court’s holding is a result of a clash between state laws and federal laws on marijuana use. “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,” Justice Allison H. Eid stated in the Court’s unanimous decision. Thus, the state’s high court ruled that the conflict between state and federal laws meant that Coats’s use was not lawful. A University of Denver professor who studies legal issues pertaining to marijuana’s growing place in society, Sam Kamin, also stated that “[a]s long as that federal prohibition is in place, the states can only do so much.”
However, despite the conflict, the regulated marijuana industry has become very popular in Colorado, inspiring marijuana-themed yoga classes, cooking seminars and gallery events. Additionally, the state brings in millions of dollars in revenue from marijuana sellers.
Coats’s lawyer, Michael Evans, stated that the decision was “devastating,” but that it at least clarified the boundaries of marijuana use for employees. This decision could potentially have a huge impact on employment law and other matters in Colorado. Employees in the entire state are at a risk of being fired if they use medical marijuana, even if it is used outside of the work place.
If you or your institution has any questions or concerns regarding employment related issues, please email Cynthia A. Augello at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (516) 357-3753.
A special thank you to Lauren Dwarika, a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for her assistance with this blog post.