Monday, June 15, 2015
Colorado Supreme Court Beats the Reefer
By Tommy Eden
Brandon Coats was partially paralyzed in a car crash as a teenager, using a wheelchair, and has been a medical marijuana patient since 2010 when he discovered that using pot helped calm violent seizures and muscle spasms. Coats was a telephone call-center operator with Dish Network for three years before he failed a cheek-swab random drug test in 2010 and was fired. Dish Network has a zero-tolerance policy against using illegal drugs.
Today, the Colorado Supreme Court sided with Dish Network in holding that because marijuana is till an illegal drug under federal law that the employer was within its rights to fire Brandon Coats. In doing do the Court specifically rejected Coats argument that the company violated a Colorado state law that protects workers who engage in lawful off-duty conduct.
Specifically, the Court held that under the plain language of section 24-34-402.5, 13 C.R.S. (2014), Colorado’s “lawful activities statute,” the term “lawful” refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law. Employees who engage in an activity such as medical marijuana use, that is permitted by Colorado state law, but unlawful under federal law are not protected by the statute. This was a highly anticipated and watched decision.
Colorado voters first approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the use of medical marijuana in 2000. Marijuana for recreational use was approved by voters in 2012 and started being sold in retail shops in Colorado on April 1, 2014.
Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia now have medical marijuana laws. Colorado law specifically states that employers do not have to accommodate employees’ marijuana use. But other states such as Arizona, Nevada, New York, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Delaware grant various levels of protections to medical marijuana card holders from discrimination.
Additionally, the Supreme Courts for the states of California, Washington, and Montana have all ruled that an employer has no duty to accommodate the use of an “illegal drug” such as marijuana. The fact that marijuana remains a schedule one “illegal drug” under federal law has been critical in each ruling for the employer, as it was in this case.
Coats brought his lawsuit against Dish under Colorado’s lawful off-duty activities law, which specifically says employers cannot fire people for doing something legal on their own time. Originally the law was enacted to protect cigarette smokers and multiple states have similar laws. Both the trial judge and Colorado Court of Appeals have already ruled against Coats “legal use” argument holding that as long as marijuana is illegal under federal law the state law does not apply.
Common Sense Counsel: So what should an employer who has employees assigned to work in a medical marijuana state do? Consider these 5 Steps an employer can take to successfully walk the workplace marijuana tightrope:
1. Understand the laws on Medical Marijuana that are specific to states where employees report for duty;
2. Adopt a legally vetted pre-duty prescription medication and impairing effects substances safety policy;
3. Update employee job descriptions to cover critical safety sensitive issues;
4. Adopt an ADA complaint handbook policy on reasonable accommodations in those more difficult states;
5. Let employees know your stance on Medical and Recreational Marijuana use;
6. Update your drug-free workplace policy and forms; and
7. Stay tuned as this issue continues to create new employer challenges almost monthly.
Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 334-246-2901. Blog at www.alabamaatwork.com and follow on twitter @tommyeden3