With marijuana use becoming legal in an increasing number of states, the courts will become the battleground for deciding whether an employee may be fired for marijuana use. In fact, Colorado’s highest court will decide that very issue in a state where both medicinal and recreational marijuana use have been legalized. The issue: whether a workers’ off-duty, off work-site use of medical marijuana is protected by law. The facts: Brandon Coats is a quadraplegic medical marijuana patient who was terminated from Dish Network after failing a drug test in 2010. Coats never got high at work, but pot’s intoxicating chemical, THC, can stay in the system for weeks. The employer claims that it has a zero-tolerance drug-free workplace policy, and it is therefore irrelevant if Coats was impaired at work.
Coats, 35, was paralyzed in a car accident as a teenager. In 2009, he found that pot helped dissipate violent muscle spasms. Coats was a telephone operator for Dish for three years before he failed a random drug test. He told his supervisors in advance that he would probably fail the test. The lower courts upheld the firing, holding that pot use cannot be considered lawful so long as it violates federal law.
Aside from the narrow issue of state law, there are several important issues in this case. Colorado, like New York and several other states, has a Legal Activities Law which prevents employers from discriminating against employees who engage in off-duty, off work-site activities which are legal. New York also recently made legal the medicinal use of marijuana under certain conditions. Also, under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as New York’s Human Rights Law, Dish’s termination of Coats may constitute unlawful disability discrimination based on his disability. There is also the issue of reasonable accommodation of Coats’ disability.
It would appear that where workers are employed in nonhazardous jobs, unless there is some negative impact in the workplace, an employee’s marijuana use may not serve as a basis for discharge. Negative impacts may include smoking or ingesting at work, impairment or being ‘hung over’ at work, poor performance linked to the use, or time and attendance issues.
Also, if the employer receives federal funding, condoning known pot use may jeopardize a federal subsidized project, contract, continued receipt of federal funds, or status as a federal agency employer inasmuch as federal law still prohibits pot use.
This case clearly has nationwide implications as it will impact how companies and other employers treat employees who use the drug both medically and recreationally. It will therefore be interesting to see how Colorado’s Supreme Court rules. Stay tuned.