The high court affirmed previous lower court rulings that allowed businesses to terminate employees for the use of medical marijuana – even if its off-duty. With this ruling, Colorado becomes the first state to set precedent regarding an often muddled and ambiguous area of the law.

The Background of the Case

The superior court’s ruling comes nine months after hearing oral arguments in the case of Brandon Coats, a former Dish Network employee who was fired in 2010 after a random drug test revealed he had been using medical marijuana off-duty.

Coats had been using marijuana prescribed to him as a measure to control muscle spasms after a car accident left him quadriplegic. He possessed a medical marijuana card and consumed the substance only while off-duty. The 35-year-old former customer service representative challenged his ex-employer’s zero-tolerance drug policy, claiming that his use was legal under state law. His firing has been upheld in both trial court and the Colorado Court of Appeals.

‘Lawful’ Under State and Federal Law

The defendant’s case hinged mainly on determining whether or not the use of medical marijuana was deemed “lawful” under the state’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute. However that term, the justices said, refers to activities lawful 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,” Justice Allison H. Eid wrote in the opinion. Employers in Colorado are allowed to set their own policies on drug use and drug testing under the state’s current law.

Coats, still unemployed, stated that he would not take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It was just kind of shocking,” Coats said of the decision. “This is a hard case, and it was going to be a hard case to win. I was definitely hoping it would go the other way.”

Officials for Dish Network had the opposite reaction concerning the court’s ruling.
“We are pleased with the outcome of the court’s decision today,” the company said in a statement. “As a national employer, Dish remains committed to a drug-free workplace and compliance with federal law.”

The Ramifications of State-Level Marijuana Legalization

Employers throughout Colorado increased their drug testing after the state legalized recreational marijuana use last year, according to Curtis Graves, an attorney for Mountain States Employers Council. Nonetheless, a year later, and with an unemployment rate below 5 percent, some employers have become much more lenient concerning the issue. “We’ve seen a number of employers, particularly in hospitality … who are actually omitting THC from a pre-employment drug screen,” Graves said.

The tides may be turning for advocates of medical marijuana, yet, until adjustments are made at the federal level, medicinal pot users like Brandon Coats will continue to search for viable solutions.

“I won’t be able to work if things don’t change, so I’m going to spend time advocating,” Coats told CNN. “If we’re going to make laws that make medical marijuana legal, we have to address issues that go with it.”

ENLawyers: Bottom Line

In Maryland this ruling doesn’t necessarily have a direct effect for either business owners or Medical Marijuana users because the decision falls under Colorado State Law. But issues such as this are worth consideration when developing any office drug use policy for a small business. For any Baltimore Small Business legal issues, don’t forget to contact ENLawyers by phone at 443.559.4384 or via email at