Colorado Court: Off-Duty Employees Can Be Fired For Smoking Pot

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Photo: Brandon Coats (AP Photo)
Attorney Michael Evans, left, sits in his office in Denver on Thursday, April 25, 2013, with his client Brandon Coats. Coats, a quadriplegic medical marijuana patient, was fired from his job in 2010 as a telephone operator at Dish Network after testing positive for marijuana.

Colorado's Supreme Court has ruled that Brandon Coats, a medical-marijuana patient who was fired after failing a drug test, cannot get his job back.

"Although I’m very disappointed today, I hope that my case has brought the issue of use of medical marijuana and employment to light," said Coats. "Hopefully views on medical marijuana – like the ones in my specific case - will change soon."

The court's ruling said employees who use medical marijuana are not protected by Colorado's lawful activities statute because marijuana use is still illegal under federal law.

The case has big implications for employers and pot smokers in states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana. Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational pot in 2012.

Brandon Coats is a quadriplegic who was fired by Dish Network after failing a drug test in 2010. Coats told CPR News last September he uses marijuana after work to get his spasms under control.

"There’s a lot of people out there like me who would like to have a job but cannot, because their impairment requires them to use marijuana, and because marijuana’s looked down on for employment, they’re not able to get jobs," he said.

The company agreed that Coats wasn't high on the job but said it has a zero-tolerance drug policy.

University of Denver employment law professor Rachel Arnow-Richman said Colorado has uniquely liberal laws regarding marijuana use and what employees are allowed to do outside of work. Taken together, this left the justices with wide discretion in the case.

"The fact that federal law prohibits marijuana is a perfectly reasonable basis for the court’s decision, but it’s not the only way it could have gone," Arnow-Richman said.

This ruling only applies to medical marijuana. The Colorado amendment legalizing recreational marijuana specifically protects an employer’s right to fire workers for off-duty use.

Arnow-Richman also sees the decision as passing the question of medical marijuana use to employers.

"As marijuana becomes more mainstream, the problem is going to continue to arise and individual employers are going to have to decide whether they are going to test for this drug or not," she said.