Colorado Court Rules Patients Can Be Fired for Medical Marijuana

In a 6-0 decision, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that patients can be fired by employers for using medical marijuana, despite the fact that both medical and recreational marijuana are legal within the state.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit brought forth by medical marijuana patient Brandon Coats. Coats was a former employee at the Colorado-based Dish Network and has been a quadriplegic since age 16. In 2009 Coates obtained a medical marijuana card and began using the substance after work to control muscle spasms and other complications from his condition.

In 2010, Coats was randomly drug tested by his employers at Dish Network and was subsequently fired after he tested positive for THC.

Coats sued the television provider claiming that his firing violated Colorado’s Lawful Activities statute, which protects employees from being fired for committing activities that are considered lawful after work hours.

However, the lower courts sided with Dish Network, claiming that using medical marijuana could not be considered a lawful activity if it is still illegal on the federal level. In the Colorado Supreme Court ruling, the justices reached that same conclusion and ruled against Coats.

“Nothing in the language of the statute limits the term ‘lawful’ to state law,” wrote Justice Allison Eid in the court’s decision. “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. We therefore decline Coats’s invitation to engraft a state law limitation onto the statutory language.”

Naturally, Coats and his lawyers were not happy with the ruling. “Although I’m very disappointed today, I hope that my case has brought the issue of use of medical marijuana and employment to light,” Coats explained in a statement.

In the narrow sense, this court ruling appears to clear up any ambiguity regarding employment and medical marijuana in Colorado. In a broader context, however, this ruling could affect other medical marijuana cases across the country.

One such case is the lawsuit brought forth by Christine Callaghan against Darlington Fabrics Corp. in Rhode Island. The company initially hired Callaghan for a paid internship, but rescinded the offer upon learning that she was a medical marijuana patient.

While state courts have traditionally ruled on behalf of employers with medical marijuana cases, Callaghan has a better chance than most as Rhode Island’s medical marijuana law explicitly protects patients from any “civil penalty or disciplinary action by a business or occupational or professional licensing board or bureau, for the medical use of marijuana.”

If Colorado had legislative language like Rhode Island’s medical marijuana law does, Coats’ case may have had a different outcome. Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor, told The Denver Post that while the court’s interpretation of the law was correct, the ruling could still inspire legislators to pass a law protecting patients like Coats.

“I think [Coats’] case is very sympathetic, and I think his case would be quite compelling before the legislature,” Kamin said.

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