The Colorado Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that companies can legally fire employees for using medical marijuana, even off duty.
The decision is based on the case of Brandon Coats. He is a quadriplegic who takes medical marijuana to control muscle spasms in his legs. Dish Network fired him from his job as a customer service representative in 2010 after he failed a random drug test. Coats then sued for unlawful termination. Business groups praised the court's decision.
"Businesses should be allowed to have zero tolerance drug polies," said Karen Harned, an attorney with the National Federation of Independent Business. "We definitely sympathized with the original plaintiff but work drug policies are there to protect everyone."
Medical marijuana advocates said the ruling is disappointing and would force patients like Coats to have to choose between working or taking a drug they need.
"The question is do employers really need that much power over their employees on something that doesn't impact them," said Mike Elliot, the Executive Director of the Marijuana Industry Group. "This is obviously a disappointing ruling for patients, but it's the beginning of the conversation."
Elliot said he's optimistic lawmakers will address the issue next year and clarify the law to make medical marijuana similar to other medications and prescription drugs. Representative Jonathon Singer (D-Longmont) said he's already in discussions with other lawmakers about a bill to do just that.
"I think we need that same clarity for workplaces, you should have a right to use your medication, in an appropriate time and place," said Singer.
He notes that the legislature just passed a law to allow underage medical marijuana patients to use medical marijuana while going to school, however he thinks the workplace issue will be harder to pass.
"I think this will be a little bit more challenging than a lot of other bills, because you're going to see the interaction of labor vs. management, civil liberties and a free market are potentially coming into conflict," said Singer.
Any bill would need support from both parties to clear the Democratic controlled House and Republican controlled Senate.
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