Jun 19, 2015

Colorado Approves Firing For Off-the-Clock Medical Marijuana Use

In a recent decision, the Colorado Supreme Court held that an employer may fire an employee for violating its drug policy, regardless of whether the employee is permitted to use medical marijuana under state law.

The case, Coats v. Dish Network, LLC, concerned Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who smokes marijuana at home, after work, and in accordance with his medical marijuana license and Colorado state law.  Coats worked as a customer service representative for Dish Network from 2007 until 2010.  In May 2010, Coats tested positive for THC after a random drug test and was fired for violating the company’s zero-tolerance drug policy.  Coats filed a suit against Dish Network for wrongful termination, arguing his medical marijuana use was legal under state law.

Typically, Colorado state law protects employees from wrongful termination when they are fired for engaging in “lawful activities” off the employer’s premises and during nonworking hours.  However, marijuana use is illegal under federal law, pursuant to the Controlled Substances Act.  Based on the conflict between state and federal law, the court’s decision turned on whether Coats’s medical marijuana use was a “lawful activity” requiring protection under the state’s wrongful termination statute.

In a 6-0 decision, the Colorado Supreme Court found in favor of Dish Network.  Ultimately, Coats’s termination was upheld because his medical marijuana use, even off-the-clock, was not a protected “lawful activity.”  The court found that the term “lawful” refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law.

To learn more about how drug policies and medical marijuana may affect your company, or if you have any questions regarding these issues, please contact your labor and employment counsel at Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP.

This client alert is intended to inform clients and other interested parties about legal matters of current interest and is not intended as legal advice.

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