Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled Monday that employers can fire workers who use marijuana for medical reasons, even though it’s legal in that state. The case involved Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who was fired by Dish Network (DISH) in 2010 after he failed a company drug test for pot. Coats had a doctor’s authorization to smoke medical marijuana, which has been legal in Colorado since 2000. Coats says that he never used marijuana — or was under its influence — at work, facts that Dish Network does not dispute.
But the company says it has a zero-tolerance drug policy, and notes that medical marijuana is still illegal on the federal level. Therefore, Dish says the use of cannabis for any reason is cause for termination.
There is a Colorado law that protects employees from being discharged for “lawful activities,” but the court ruled the law refers only to activities which are legal under both state and federal law.
“Therefore, employees who engage in an activity such as medical marijuana use that is permitted by state law but unlawful under federal law are not protected by the statute,” said the court’s decision. Colorado has since legalized marijuana for recreational use, although that law states that businesses can still prohibit marijuana use by their employees.
While the case applies only to Colorado, it could have broader legal implications for other states moving to legalize the plant for either medical or recreational use despite federal law.