Legally Fired – Colorado Court Backs Federal Law

Quadriplegic Brandon Coats Fired for Medical Cannabis Use

Colorado has been at the forefront of American Cannabis legislation since it first passed medical use laws in the year 2000. However, the Colorado Supreme Court released a decision today that, according to most industry skeptics, could have lasting ramifications. After a yearlong debate, the Supreme Court announced Monday that a business can fire an employee who uses medical marijuana, even if that employee is off duty during consumption. The explanation behind this ruling references the continued separation between state and federal governments as to the legality of Cannabis, either medical or recreational.

“Employees who engage in an activity such as medical marijuana use that is permitted by state law but unlawful under federal law are not protected.” –Excerpt from Supreme Court Judges decision.

The employee in this case was Brandon Coats, age 35. Coats, who has been using medical Cannabis since he first obtained his physicians recommendation back in 2009, suffers from painful seizures stemming from a 1996 car accident that left him a quadriplegic. Coats former employer, Dish Network, fired him after he failed a random drug test. A result that was, of course, no surprise to Coats. After the firing, Coats sought legal council in the form of attorney Michael Evans of The Evans Group. Working with Evans, Coats moved his lawsuit up the legislative ladder, eventually landing in the laps of the Colorado Supreme Court. After nine months of hearings the Court ruled in favor of Dish Network by a resounding 6-0 vote. As you might expect, Evans was more than disappointed with the ruling.

“For people like Brandon Coats, there really isn’t a ‘choice,’ as MMJ is the only substance both he and his (Colorado-licensed) physicians know of to control his seizures due to his quadriplegia. He has to have it.” – Attorney Michael Evans

While the kneejerk reactions from media sources around the country are saying this is a big step back for the Cannabis industry, one could argue that this is simply standing still. There is no secret in the industry that Cannabis remains federally illegal and this example simply represents that ongoing fact. The interpretation afforded by the Colorado Supreme Court fully acknowledges the states rights of Brandon Coats in their ruling. However, it cites the Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute that must be applied here and functions as both a state and federal legislation.

“Therefore, employees who engage in an activity, such as medical marijuana use, that is permitted by state law but unlawful under federal law are not protected by the statute.” – Justice Allison H. Eid

Yes, Coats consumption of medical Cannabis was legal under Colorado state law. However, since Cannabis remains federally illegal the court must also provide consideration for businesses, many of which maintain federal contracts. Dish Network recognized the importance of this consideration, citing their ability to maintain a drug-free workplace being paramount to maintaining their federal accounts.

“If Dish loses the case, the company wrote in a brief to the court, ‘Dish (and every other Colorado employer) can no longer maintain a drug-free policy’ and companies across the state could risk losing federal contracts because they no longer complied with federal drug-free workplace laws.” – Alicia Wallace – Denver Post 

Bottom line, until federal legislation catches up with that of the state, the Cannabis industry and its consumers will continue to see court cases result in such rulings. The 6-0 decision may not be fair to Coats for obvious reasons, but the ruling in no way reflects Coats need for medical Cannabis treatments. The court even went as far as to acknowledge that Coats was acting perfectly within state law. In this case, the court did the job it was created to do; interpret the laws put in place by society. The Colorado Supreme Court, in a sense, had their hands tied by the conflict between state and federal Cannabis legislation. Those binds will not be undone in Colorado, or any other state, until lawmaking bodies unify their stance and create a national Cannabis policy. Hopefully for medical patients like Brandon Coats, that unification comes sooner than later.

Should someone like Brandon Coats be fired when acting within the bounds of state law? How would you have ruled if you were a judge in this case? Fair or Foul? Join the conversation and comment below!

Photo credit: Mikael Kristenson

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