Colorado High Court Ok’s Firing of Worker For State-Authorized Use of Medical Marijuana

Earlier today, the Supreme Court of Colorado, affirming a split decision of the state’s Court of Appeals, held that under the plain language of Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24–34–402.5, Colorado’s “lawful activities statute,” the term “lawful” refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law [Coats v. Dish Network, 2015 CO 44 (June 15, 2015)]. Employees who engage in an activity such as medical marijuana use that is permitted by state law but unlawful under federal law are accordingly not protected by the statute.

Background

Coats worked for Dish Network as a customer service representative. A quadriplegic, Coats had been confined to a wheelchair since he was a teenager. He obtained a state license to use medical marijuana to treat painful muscle spasms caused by his quadriplegia. He consumed marijuana at home, after work, and in accordance with his license and Colorado state law. In 2010, Coats tested positive for marijuana during a random drug test administered by his employer, Dish Network. When Coats informed his employer that he was a registered medical marijuana patient and that he planned to continue using medical marijuana, Dish Network fired him for violating its drug policy.

Coats filed a wrongful termination claim against Dish Network, contending that he had engaged in “lawful activities” off the premises of the employer and that Dish Network violated the lawful activities statute by firing him based on his use of medical marijuana. The trial court dismissed Coats’ claim. In a split decision, the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal based on the prohibition of marijuana use under the federal Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. § 844(a) (2012) (the “CSA”). Dissenting, Judge Webb argued that the term “lawful” must be interpreted according to state, rather than federal, law.

Marijuana Use Remains “Unlawful” Under Federal Law

The Supreme Court disagreed with Judge Webb’s dissent, noting that Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24–34–402.5 did not restrict the term “lawful” in any manner. The Court declined, therefore, to “engraft a state law limitation” on the term. The Court continued that “lawful” was generally understood to mean “in accordance with the law or legitimate.” The Court reiterated that nothing in the statute indicated the General Assembly intended § 24–34–402.5’s protection for “lawful” activities to activities that are unlawful under federal law.

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