Colorado Supreme Court: OK to Fire Employee for Off-Duty Use of Medicinal Marijuana

On June 15, 2015, Colorado’s highest court ruled that employers can terminate employees for smoking marijuana outside of work, even if the employee has a state-issued permit to smoke marijuana for medicinal purposes. Such action by the employer would not violate Colorado’s “lawful activities statute,” which protects employees from adverse action by their employer for engaging in lawful activity outside of work.

This case stemmed from Dish Network’s decision to terminate Brandon Coats, one of its call center employees, for violating its drug policy. Coats is a quadriplegic and has a permit to smoke medicinal marijuana in compliance with Colorado’s Medicinal Marijuana Amendment. Coats would smoke his medicinal marijuana in the evenings at home after work. He did not bring drugs to work, nor is there evidence that the smoking affected his work performance. Nonetheless, Dish Network determined that Coats’s marijuana use was in violation of its drug policy, and terminated his employment.

Coats sued Dish Network claiming that his termination was in violation of the “lawful activities statute,” since he was terminated for lawful activity (i.e. medicinal marijuana) performed outside of work. However, the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court disagreed. Since marijuana, even for medicinal purposes, is not “lawful” under federal law, and the lawful activities statute contains no state law limitation on the term “lawful,” marijuana use – even with a state permit – cannot be said to be “lawful.” Thus, Coats’s termination was not contrary to Colorado law.

Legalizing marijuana has become a hot-button issue in many states, and it remains to be seen how many states will follow Colorado’s lead and legalize marijuana use under particular circumstances. For those that do, this case serves as the first indication of how legal marijuana use under state law interacts with the employment relationship. An employer can still treat legal marijuana use as “unlawful” activity that violates its drug policy – and take action against the employee – as long as marijuana remains an illegal substance under federal law and state law does not specifically protect employees’ use of marijuana. Issues over marijuana and how it interacts with the employment relationship are not likely to go away any time soon.

For more information about this or any related matter, please contact any member of the KDDK Labor & Employment Law Practice Team.

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