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Colorado High Court Deems Use of Legal Marijuana Valid Ground for Termination



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On Monday, June 15, the Colorado Supreme Court released its opinion in Coats v. Dish Network, affirming a lower court’s decision to uphold the firing of employee Brandon Coats for off-duty use of marijuana.  This decision adds clarity for employers as they continue to amend and adapt their internal drug policies to the changes in law.

The Court ruled that Dish did not improperly terminate Coats, who tested positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (the active ingredient in marijuana) in a random, company-issued drug test.  Coats is a quadriplegic medical marijuana patient who used the drug as a means of treating violent spasms and seizures suffered since a car crash caused his paralysis. Although Coats used medical marijuana “off-duty,” Dish maintains a “no tolerance” policy with regard to drug use and terminated Coats’s employment subsequent to the positive test result.

Under Colorado law, it is considered discriminatory “for an employer to terminate the employment of any employee due to that employee’s engaging in any lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours.”  As such, Coats brought suit arguing that his termination was discriminatory on the basis that his actions were within the legal confines of Colorado law.  Dish argued that because marijuana is still illegal under federal laws, use of medical marijuana is not a lawful activity intended for protection under Colorado state laws.

The Court rejected Coats’s argument holding that a business can permissibly terminate an employee for off-duty medical marijuana use even if the employee is abiding by state law.

For questions about your employee policies, contact a member of our Labor and Employment Team.