Private, Off-Duty Use of Medical Marijuana Not Protected

Medical Marijuana in Workplace

The Colorado Supreme Court has delivered an important ruling on the issue of medical marijuana that is sure to be used immediately as case law across the U.S.  The topic is very important because it clarifies one of the most confusing aspects about the employment of medical marijuana users.  In essence, medical marijuana is legal in some states but still illegal under federal law; this ruling affirms that even if medical marijuana is legal under state law, the fact that it is still illegal under federal law means employers can use an employee testing positive for medical marijuana use as a justification for termination.

Brandon Coats of Colorado was an employee at Dish Network, a cable company.  Coats is a quadriplegic and a card-carrying medical marijuana user.  Coats was a fine employee but he failed a random drug test at work, testing positive for having THC, the active drug in marijuana, in his system.  Coats claims he was not impaired at the time and only smokes marijuana in the evening to help with his spinal spasms. 

Dish Network has a zero tolerance policy on drug use and fired Coats despite the fact that Coats is a registered medical marijuana user.  Coats sued but lost; the case then made its way up to the Colorado Supreme Court.  On Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the previous ruling: Even if marijuana is legal medically and recreationally in Colorado, it is still illegal under Federal law and thus his employer had the right to terminate him.

“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,” the Colorado court ruled. “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.”

The ruling affirms that when it comes to the use of marijuana, federal law trumps state law.

The Coats ruling will likely now be used in other cases involving the off-duty use of medical marijuana by employees and how employers are allowed to discipline them for failing drug screening.