Workers can be fired for smoking marijuana off the job, Colorado court rules

DENVER Thu Apr 25, 2013 6:56pm EDT

A participant rolls a marijuana filled blunt at the 4/20 marijuana holiday in Civic Center Park in downtown Denver April 20, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

A participant rolls a marijuana filled blunt at the 4/20 marijuana holiday in Civic Center Park in downtown Denver April 20, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

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DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado medical marijuana patients can lose their jobs for using pot because it remains illegal under federal law, a state appeals court ruled on Thursday, upholding the firing of a quadriplegic who was terminated after testing positive for cannabis.

In a split decision, a three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals said that federal law trumps a state law that protects workers for engaging in lawful activities outside the workplace.

Colorado is one of 20 states and the District of Columbia that allows the use of medical pot. Voters in Colorado and Washington state both legalized the use of recreational marijuana last November

The federal government considers marijuana an illegal and dangerous narcotic. U.S. officials have said they are considering how to respond to the legalization moves.

The case, which follows similar decisions by courts in Washington and California, had been closely watched by employment lawyers for its implications not only for medical marijuana users but also recreational pot smokers.

Experts have said it may embolden companies seeking to fire employees found to have violated workplace policies against pot use outside of work, a right that a Colorado state task force earlier this year said employers continue to hold despite last year's vote by the state's residents to legalize recreational use of the drug.

The ruling stems from the case of Brandon Coats, who was rendered a quadriplegic from a car crash, and is a registered medical-marijuana card holder.

Coats was fired from his job at the Dish Network after testing positive for marijuana in a random test, even though there was no evidence that he was under the influence at work.

Coats sued to regain his job and a district court judge ruled the company was within its rights to terminate him. The appellate court on Thursday upheld that ruling.


"(W)hile we agree that the general purpose of (the worker protection law) ... is to keep an employer's proverbial nose out of an employee's off-site off-hours business ... we can find no legislative intent to extend employment protections to those engaged in activities that violate federal law," Judge Janice Davidson wrote in the majority opinion.

Coats' lawyer, Michael Evans, told Reuters the ruling was disappointing but said he will appeal the decision to the state's highest court.

"If someone's going to pick a fight with the federal government, it will be the state supreme court and not the court of appeals," he said.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge John Webb said because the Colorado law makes no mention of either state or federal law, the statute is ambiguous and as such the courts should defer to state law.

"Narrowing the scope of employee protection by looking beyond state law to activities that are proscribed only at the federal law would limit this protection," he said.

University of Denver law professor Sam Kamin said the ruling is far from being the final word on the issue but for now it will likely apply to the recreational use of pot, which Colorado voters approved last fall.

The larger question, he said, is the looming showdown between states that allow either medical or recreational marijuana use, and the federal government which lists marijuana as an illegal narcotic.

"It's unclear what the import this (ruling) will have on the federal prohibition, but it needs to be resolved one way or another," he said.

Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for legalization, said employment law surrounding off-work pot use will evolve to reflect changing societal attitudes.

"Culturally, it will occur even more quickly, as a majority of Americans now think marijuana should be legal for adults," he said.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Lisa Shumaker)

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Comments (2)
This is extremely messed up. IF a Colorado court ruled that Federal law trumps State law, then legalizing marijuana in that State means absolutely nothing, because the Feds can still arrest and prosecute people for smoking marijuana. That makes absolutely no sense. IMHO, I hope this poor guy appeals and I hope it goes all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Employers should NOT have the right to intrude upon the private lives of its employees – what’s next, will we bring back the old “morals” clause? Will employers have the right to fire employees they consider sexually promiscuous? Gay? Single mothers? Divorcees? This court should have had the backbone to interpret the law from a point of JUSTICE….and not automatically back the employers just because it’s BUSINESS. Thumbs down.

Apr 26, 2013 12:45pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Huluviewer wrote:
Anyone with a SSN, or DMV CDL/ID, is under federal jurisdiction as a US citizen or lawful permanent resident alien.
It is same in California, although the Med Mari laws of California states definitively that it is for “Californians only.”
Federal law defines the legal term “Californian” as a native of the State of California, who are not US citizen or lawful permanent resident alien.
This court ruling follows 28 CFR 36:104, where it is defined an “Individual with a disability means a person who has a disability. The term “individual with a disability” does not include an individual who is currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs, when the private entity acts on the basis of such use.”
To ignore the State’s Social Order will cost one’s rights, whereas like California a Citizen is defined as 1) those who are California-born and reside in state, & 2) althought not CA-born are US citizens (US citizens must be 18 yrs old). Non-citizens are 1) citizens of other states, or 2) aliens.
I was not born 18 at birth, and the SSA says a SSN is not required to live or work in the US, and California says it is not required to work in California.
To use Med Mari one can have no federal worker numbers and not be an alien.

Apr 26, 2013 1:06pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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