Although many states have legalized the use of medical marijuana, under federal law any use of marijuana is illegal. This situation has caused problems for many employers that have strict drug use policies. The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that employees who use medical marijuana are not protected by the state’s “lawful activities statute” and can be fired, resolving the issue for employers in that state. [Coats v. Dish Network]
The employee in this case, Brandon Coats, is a paraplegic who has been confined to a wheelchair since he was a teenager. In 2009 he registered for and obtained a state-issued license to use medical marijuana to treat painful muscle spasms caused by his quadriplegia. Coats consumes medical marijuana at home, after work, and in compliance with his license and Colorado state law.
[Related: Marijuana: An emerging coverage risk]
Between 2007 and 2010, Coats worked for Dish Network as a telephone customer service representative. In May 2010, Coats tested positive for marijuana during a random drug test. Coats informed his employer that he was a registered medical marijuana patient and planned to continue using medical marijuana. On June 7, 2010, Dish fired Coats for violating the company’s drug policy.
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Wrongful termination claim
Coats sued Dish for wrongful termination under the Colorado statute that generally prohibits employers from discharging an employee based on his engagement in “lawful activities” off the employer’s premises during non-work hours. According to Coats, Dish violated the statute by terminating him based on his use of medical marijuana outside of work, which he claimed was “lawful” under the Colorado Medical Marijuana Amendment and its implementing legislation. Dish argued that Coats’ medical marijuana use was not “lawful” for purposes of the statute under either federal or state law.
The trial court dismissed Coats’ claim, finding that the Amendment provided registered patients an affirmative defense to state criminal prosecution without making their use of medical marijuana a lawful activity within the meaning of the law. The trial court concluded that Coats wasn’t protected by the statute and dismissed the claim without considering the federal law issue.