The Colorado Supreme Court is weighing a medical marijuana case that could have far-reaching implications for employment law in the state.
Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who uses marijuana to ease muscle spasms, sued Dish Network when it fired him from his job in its call center after Coates failed a company drug test.
Two lower courts ruled against Coats, citing a 2000 constitutional amendment that legalized medical use of marijuana in Colorado. The law specifically says it does not require employers to accommodate pot use in the workplace.
But Coats is arguing that he shouldn’t have been fired for using a substance that is legal on the state level while off the clock, equating it to drinking alcohol in the off-work hours. His firing, he contends, violates a state law called the Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute, which protects workers from being fired for doing things that are legal outside of work hours.
The catch, of course, is that while marijuana use is legal in Colorado — both medically and recreationally — it remains illegal at the federal level. Dish Network has a zero tolerance drug policy.
In oral arguments, which began late last week, Coats’ attorney said the justices should overlook that marijuana in all of its forms and uses is illegal at the federal level, but rather that Dish Network violated the state law by firing Coats for an activity that’s legal at the state level.
“We’re not arguing that it’s a constitutional right,” Coats’ attorney Michael Evans told the court, “but we are arguing that it’s lawful” to use marijuana when he’s not at work.
Coats, who has been unemployed since he was fired in 2010, has said that he never used marijuana while at work and that he was never under its influence while performing his duties.
Dish Network attorney Meghan Martinez argued that wasn’t true, considering Coats’ admission that he used marijuana in order to quell the symptoms of his quadriplegia.
According to the Denver Post, the justices seemed preoccupied with “basic questions” such as how the attorneys defined terms like “lawful” and “use.”
It may be weeks before the court issues a ruling and it may come down to a tie; one justice, according to the Post, recused herself because her father is a judge on one of the lower courts that found in favor of Dish.
Should the high court tie, the lower court ruling would stand.
Evans told the court that if it rules against his client, it would mean that Colorado’s medical marijuana amendment “is really just for the unemployed.”
But another attorney unconnected to the case told the Post that if Coats wins, it will throw state employment law “into chaos.”
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