In 2010, a 30-year-old quadriplegic man named Brandon Coats was fired from his gig as a telephone operator with Dish Network in Colorado after failing a random drug test—even though he had a prescription for the drug under the state's medical pot law. He sued his former employer, and the case went all the way to the Colorado State Supreme Court. But on Monday, the justices ruled unanimously against him.
The wheelchair-bound Coats maintained that he was never impaired at work, and simply used pot to control muscle spasms stemming from a car accident. When Coats initially filed the lawsuit in August 2011, he argued that his marijuana consumption was legal under state law, but a trial court ruled in favor of the company, and that decision was upheld by a Colorado Court of Appeals two years later.
This latest ruling will resonate across the country as medical and recreational weed become the stuff of everyday life for millions of Americans. But even though marijuana is now legal for recreational use throughout Colorado, the case wasn't really about weed, but rather what happens when state and federal laws come into conflict.
Coats's lawsuit cited a Colorado statute that prohibits employers from discriminating or terminating workers for engaging in legal, off-duty conduct. Yet the justices pointed out that federal law does not recognize medical marijuana as legit, and therefore Coats's behavior granted Dish Network the right to terminate him.
"The supreme court holds that under the plain language of section 24-34-402.5, C.R.S. (2014), Colorado's 'lawful activities statute,' the term 'lawful' refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law. 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. We therefore affirm the court of appeals' opinion," the justices wrote in their ruling.
In response to an inquiry from VICE, a spokesman from Dish Network said, "We are pleased with the outcome of the court's decision today. As a national employer, DISH remains committed to a drug-free workplace and compliance with federal law."
In a statement released Monday morning, Coats's attorney Michael Evans said that if nothing else, this ruling sets an important precedent when it comes to pot legalization and labor laws.
"Although naturally devastating for us, the silver lining of this case…. is that there was previously no clear definition on what an employer and employee could do when it came to MMJ [medical marijuana]," Evans wrote. "It was a very scary 'gray' area for both sides. All of that hard work and risk put into this case was not a waste, because at least now there is clear communication for everyone on that issue from the Court.
"Today's decision means that until someone in the House or Senate champions the cause, most employees who work in a state with the world's most powerful MMJ laws will have to choose between using MMJ and work," Evans continued. "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."
Richard Collins, a law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, tells VICE he's surprised at the "narrowness" of Coats's attorney's arguments, suggesting there were plenty of other avenues they might've taken to argue the case.
"One of the puzzling questions is why he didn't make a claim for discrimination on the basis of disability," Collins says. "Instead his lawyers based his entire case on this state statute, so the case all turned on whether his use of marijuana was lawful. Once you isolate the issue that way, it seems like an easy case, and I'm not surprised at all at the outcome.
"Another thing is that the lawyers for Mr. Coats failed to make an argument that there's a case to be made that his use [of marijuana ] was lawful under federal law," Collins adds, "because the executive department of the federal government has suspended enforcement of marijuana laws against those who use it for medical purposes lawfully under state law."
The fitness of his attorney's legal strategy notwithstanding, Brandon Coats likes to think the case will have some kind of positive impact for those who use weed solely as a source of relief from pain.
"Although I'm very disappointed today, I hope that my case has brought the issue of use of medical marijuana and employment to light," he said through his lawyer. "If we're making marijuana legal for medical purposes, we need to address issues that come along with it such as employment. Hopefully views on medical marijuana—like the ones in my specific case—will change soon."
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