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Colorado Supreme Court Affirms Employers’ Right To Ban Marijuana Use

on Wednesday, 17 June 2015 in Labor & Employment Law Update: Sarah M. Huyck, Editor

Earlier this week, the Colorado Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Coats v. Dish Network, LLC. The case required the court to determine whether the use of medical marijuana in compliance with Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Amendment, but in violation of federal law, is a “lawful activity” under Colorado’s “lawful activities statute.” That statute makes it a discriminatory labor practice to discharge an employee based on the employee’s “lawful” outside-of-work activities.

The court unanimously held that under the plain language of the lawful activities statute, the term “lawful” refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law. 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 plaintiff in the case, Brandon Coats, worked for Dish Network as a telephone customer service representative. Coats is a quadriplegic and has been confined to a wheelchair since he was a teenager. He obtained a state-issued license to use medical marijuana to treat painful muscle spasms caused by his quadriplegia. He only consumed medical marijuana at home and after working hours, and was never impaired at work. Coats tested positive for marijuana during a random drug test and was fired for violating the company’s zero-tolerance drug policy.

Coats contended that the legislature intended the term “lawful” to mean “lawful under Colorado state law,” which, he asserted, recognizes medical marijuana use as “lawful.” The court disagreed, observing that nothing in the language of the statute limits the term “lawful” to state law. Instead, the term is used in its general, unrestricted sense, indicating that a “lawful” activity is that which complies with applicable “law,” including state and federal law. The court also recognized that the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution unambiguously provides that if there is any conflict between federal and state law, federal law shall prevail.

The court’s decision affirms an employer’s right to maintain a policy in Colorado that prohibits employees from using marijuana – even for medicinal purposes as allowed by state law, and even if the employee has never used marijuana at work and has never been under the influence while working.

Colorado also has a constitutional amendment legalizing recreational marijuana use. The amendment states that it is not intended “to affect the ability of employers to have policies restricting the use of marijuana by employees.” Therefore, there is no reason to believe the court would have ruled differently in this case had the employee used marijuana recreationally.

R.J. (Randy) Stevenson

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