It’s taken 5 years, but Colorado’s Supreme Court has finally ruled in the case of Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who was fired from his job at Dish Network after failing a random drug test. As an authorized medical marijuana user, Coats’ drug use was completely legal under Colorado state law, but Dish Network argued they have a zero-tolerance drug policy. The company maintained that since marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, its use for any reason is cause for termination. On June 15, 2015 the court agreed, saying state laws that stop companies from firing people for doing a “lawful activity” only protect employees who are let go for activities that are legal under both state and federal law.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2000, and Coats had a doctor’s authorization to use it to control seizures and involuntary body movements. Coats testified that without the drug he was unable to hold a job at all. He insisted he never used the drug while at work and he was never impaired while on the job. Dish Network never disputed those claims, but nevertheless, they fired Coats from his job as a customer service phone operator right after the failed test.
Coats’ attorney says the company knew he was a medical marijuana patient, but fired him after “an unknown type or amount of THC was found” through the random mouth swab test. This is one of the stickiest points in this whole marijuana debate. The mere presence of THC in saliva, hair or blood is not proof of impairment. In fact, there is no test that can tell you if someone is currently under the influence of pot. Depending on the testing method, traces can be found weeks or months after use.
Opponents of legalization have long turned to federal law to supersede all of the new local laws. But with some states legalizing it for medical use, others going all the way and allowing recreational use and the feds refusing to address the disparity, questions and problems keep mounting.
This Colorado decision clarifies the situation for Colorado employers but it is unlikely to do much to help with confusion around the country. In New York, for example, the law states that an employer cannot fire you for being a marijuana patient. It neglects, however, to say what happens if one of these patients fails a required drug test. The gray areas abound.
One place that isn’t so murky is the long list of safety-sensitive jobs… like pilots, truck drivers and even people on oil rigs. These are all highly regulated positions which require strict adherence to federally mandated drug tests. At the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association conference a few weeks ago, Patrice Kelly of the U.S. Department of Transportation told attendees that when it comes to the transportation industry, marijuana use is absolutely unacceptable.
It is safe to assume we are going to see many more of these Colorado-type lawsuits as the issue matures. We will keep you posted. In the meantime, Coats’ attorney says it is now up to the Colorado legislature to provide some kind of protection to people who need the drug for medical issues, and he is thankful he brought this issue to light.