Colorado legalized the use of marijuana both for medical and recreational use. Brandon Coats, who has been rendered quadriplegic due to an accident, was using medical marijuana to control the severe muscle spasms that most quadriplegics suffer on a daily basis. He was not using the marijuana at work or during working hours and was a registered medical marijuana patient. He was working full-time in customer service and received excellent job reviews. However, in a random drug test he tested positive for marijuana. Under the drug-free workplace policy at Dish Network, his place of employment, he was terminated. He filed suit, alleging that he was not using marijuana at work and referencing the legality of marijuana in the state of Colorado.
The Colorado Supreme Court recently released its opinion that Dish Network’s termination of Mr. Coats was lawful. Though his actions in using marijuana in the state of Colorado were legal, marijuana is still illegal under federal law and, because of this federal illegality, Dish Network could legally terminate Mr. Coats. The state statute specifies that the protected activity must be legal under both state and federal law. Therefor, Mr. Coats’ wrongful termination claim was denied and dismissed.
This case raises some interesting issues concerning the various states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes or both medical and recreational use. The recreational and medical marijuana law in Colorado specifically indicates that, if the protected activity were illegal under state or federal law, the employer could legally terminate a person under its drug policy if a state or federal law were violated. States will now have to consider modifications to their employment statutes to prevent something like this from happening again. Unfortunately, Mr. Coats will probably never find another job due to his condition. He testified that he must continuing using medical marijuana because, without it, his spasms are disabling and he is unable to work.
Florida nearly passed a constitutional amendment permitting the use of medical marijuana. The Florida legislature has approved, and Governor Scott just signed the first medical marijuana bill into law, allowing the use of “Charlotte’s Web” for children with debilitating illnesses. If they use this drug and work in a “Drug-Free Workplace”, they face the risk for being terminated. The conflict between federal medical marijuana laws and the laws being passed by states must eventually be resolved, or the confusion will leave people with very difficult decisions. Do they take the medication that helps treat their medical condition, allowing them to continue to work and live semi-normal lives at the risk of being fired, and then having to file for disability benefits because they can’t get the medical help that they need? It is time that Congress addresses this issue and resolves the conflicts between federal law and state laws over the medical use of marijuana, because this Colorado Supreme Court decision has far-reaching consequences.
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