The recent spate of pro-marijuana legislation passed in a number of states has heaped confusion onto employers with drug testing policies. However, while using marijuana recreationally may be legal in Colorado and Washington, a recent court decision in the former state paves the way for organizations to terminate employment if drug-using workers butt up against company policy.
Court rules medical marijuana use not protected under law
The most recent development in the ongoing saga of marijuana legalization/decriminalization efforts and their effect on employer operations was handed down by the Colorado Court of Appeals. In its ruling, the court reasoned that while an employee's use of medical marijuana when he was not on the job occurred in accordance with state laws governing such allowances, it did not constitute a protected legal activity in the state and therefore would not prevent the employer from firing him.
The case that started it all was brought by Brandon Coats against his former employer, a satellite television service. Coats, a quadriplegic as a result of a car accident, worked as a phone operator for the company and had a license to use medical marijuana in Colorado. However, after he was fired for failing a drug test in 2010, a violation of company code, Coats filed a complaint against his employer alleging he was wrongfully terminated because he never used the drug at work nor was under the influence while on the job.
In his defense, Coats invoked a provision of the Colorado Civil Rights Act that states an employer cannot fire an employee for "engaging in any lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours." Coats argued that because medicinal marijuana use was allowable under Colorado statutes, it constituted a protected legal activity, a notion the employer, and ultimately the court, refuted.
Through referencing a number of previous cases that demonstrated an employer's right to discharge a worker who uses drugs, the court also noted marijuana is defined as an illegal substance under federal law, which can supplant state law in instances like this.
The court affirmed a previous ruling that dismissed Coats' suit, arguing the lawful activity clause is vague in definition and primarily used to protect workers against discrimination of consensus legal actions.
Employers in states that maintain lax marijuana laws must be focused on compliance at every step. While organizations are still allowed to drug test the workforce, they must do so in accordance with the law at every step, which is easy with the help of an HR service provider.
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