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Marijuana in the Workplace – CO and the Coates Case

Marijuana in the Workplace – CO and the Coates Case

The legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado has led to a slew of other discussions about practical issues surrounding personal use of the substance. One question on the table is whether employers in the state who have antidrug policies are still allowed to take action against employees who use marijuana legally during their off hours, or whether state legalization protects employees’ right to use the drug.Courts seem to be coming down on the side that no such right to smoke pot exists, as one recent hot news item in Colorado shows. The state’s Supreme Court ruled Monday that employers can fire people who use marijuana, even if the use occurred outside work.


The case involved Brandon Coats, who was left quadriplegic by a car crash as a teenager. Coats has held a medical marijuana permit since 2009, as he finds the drug eases his muscle spasms. He worked as a telephone operator for Dish Network for three years before being fired in 2010 after he failed a drug test. The company admitted he hadn’t ever been high at work, but said his use conflicted with Dish Network’s zero-tolerance policy on drug abuse nonetheless.


The justices sided with the company in a 6-0 verdict. They reasoned that the federal ban on marijuana does not recognize exceptions for medical marijuana or state legalization. Therefore, companies may follow federal law in crafting policies on marijuana use, they said.


Both Coats and the Dish Network saw some good in the ruling. Coats issued a statement saying he was disappointed but pleased to have the issue clarified for other workers facing similar situations, while a Dish Network statement noted that the company was “committed to a drug-free workplace and compliance with federal law.”


It’s hard not to be sympathetic to Coats’ medical issues, but we believe the courts made the right call on this one. Despite ongoing legalization efforts, the legal status of marijuana and marijuana users in federal courts remains murky at best. In addition, studies show marijuana use can lead to diminished mental functions and memory problems. And the effects of marijuana’s active chemical, THC, may linger for weeks after its use.


Given all that, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which an employee experiencing detrimental effects from marijuana use during off-duty hours could make a bad call at work that would put a customer at risk, opening the doors for liability suits against the company if it hadn’t drug-tested and made other efforts to keep drugs and people under their influence out of the workplace.


In addition, the toxic chemicals in marijuana are believed to increase the risk of bronchitis in heavy users. That can lead to workers needing time off work to recover, costing the company money as well as productivity.


The case could have impact outside Colorado. Twenty-three states make some exceptions for medical marijuana, while Oregon, Alaska, Washington state and Washington, D.C., have all made it legal for recreational use as well.

 However, there are some signs the federal law may change — at least for medical marijuana patients. Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 242 to 186 to block the Justice Department from taking action against medical marijuana users in states where the drug is legal. If the bill becomes law, companies may want to re-evaluate zero tolerance policies similar to those used at the Dish Network.


Visit https://www.duidefensematters.com/resources/marijuana-faqs for more information on the laws surrounding marijuana use in Colorado.