Colorado Supreme Court Affirms Employers Rights To Fire Medical Marijuana Patients

BrandonCoats[NPR]

Advocates Call for State and Federal Reform Protecting Medical Marijuana Patients and Legal Adult Users of Marijuana

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday affirmed lower court decisions allowing employers to fire employees for marijuana use while off-duty. The decision hinged on the state’s lawful off-duty activities statute.

The Court held that in order for the off-duty conduct to be considered “lawful,” it must be legal under both state and federal law. The unanimous decision was not a surprise to advocates working to reform marijuana law and policy in Colorado.

The case involved Brandon Coats, a 34-year-old quadriplegic, who uses marijuana to help with spasms and seizures due to a debilitating car accident. Coats worked as a customer service representative for Dish Network for three years until he was randomly drug tested and subsequently fired for testing positive for THC.

The highest court in the state has now firmly sided with employers on this issue, giving advocates a clear message that state protections are needed, according to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).

The case and many others like it highlight the gray areas and legal fixes needed in Colorado and other states that have reformed their marijuana laws. Given that the substance remains illegal under federal law, any rights bestowed upon civilians by state law fall far short of fully protecting medical marijuana patients and legal adult users of marijuana.

The problem is most apparent in the areas of employment, housing and parental rights.

“It’s now painfully clear that something akin to a medical marijuana bill of rights is needed for patients in Colorado,” said Art Way, state director for the DPA in Colorado. “Patients, advocates and legislators must find a way to extend the rights of patients and legal adult marijuana users when it comes to employment, housing and parental rights.

"We need robust state protections for our patients and legal adult marijuana users, just as we have robust regulations for the marijuana industry,” Way said.

Medical marijuana is now legal in just about half of U.S. states, recreational marijuana is now legal in four states and Washington, D.C., a multi-billion dollar legal industry is emerging, and marijuana’s mainstreaming is a regular topic in the news. Yet very few of these laws provide patients or other legal marijuana users with real safeguards from the myriad collateral issues that may arise from using marijuana.

While medical marijuana laws may allow patients access to much needed medicine and provide patients with protection from criminal penalties (arrest and prosecution), many laws simply fail to protect patients from other unfair civil penalties. Medical marijuana patients often face discrimination from employers, landlords (both public and private), medical providers, child welfare officials, and family court judges.

Civil discrimination can have devastating effects on medical marijuana patients. Patients are frequently forced to choose between treating often debilitating symptoms with medical marijuana and earning a living, keeping their home, retaining custody of their children, or receiving a life-saving organ transplant.

The protections available to patients vary significantly from state to state, and issue to issue. For example, whether an employer may enforce a zero tolerance drug use policy, even for patients lawfully using medical marijuana who are not under the influence at work, varies dramatically among the states.

The laws in only three states—Arizona, Delaware, and Minnesota—expressly prohibit employers from disciplining an employee for a positive marijuana test if that employee is a qualified patient. However, in many other states the law expressly provides that employers may lawfully implement zero-tolerance drug policies, even for medical marijuana.

Advocates are urging the passage of federal legislation, such as the bipartisan CARERS Act, to protect people in states that reformed their marijuana laws. That legislation, introduced in March, already has ten cosponsors, and there are high hopes that Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IW) will grant the bill a hearing.

Photo of Brandon Coats: NPR