A case currently working its way through the Colorado courts could have real implications for all states with legalized medical (or recreational) marijuana. Coats v. Dish Network addresses the complex intersection of anti-discrimination law, privacy rights, and legalized (often medical) marijuana in an employment context.

 

Plaintiff Coats, a licensed medical marijuana user under Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Amendment, was fired from his job at Dish Network after testing positive for marijuana. Coats alleges he never used, nor was ever under the influence of marijuana while at work.

Coats alleges that his termination violates Colorado’s Lawful Activities Statute, which prohibits employers from firing their employees for engaging in “lawful activity” off the work premises and on their own time (unless that off-the-clock activity interferes employment or creates a conflict of interest). Coats argued that because Colorado has legalized medical marijuana and he was a validly licensed MMJ patient, his off-duty cannabis use was “lawful” under the Lawful Activities Statute.

The trial court and the Colorado court of appeals both sided with Dish Network, deciding that to be “lawful” an activity must conform to both state AND federal law. Since marijuana was and is illegal on the federal level, the courts rejected Coats’s interpretation of the Lawful Activities Statute. Coats’s case will now be heard by the Colorado Supreme Court, but another employer has already won dismissal of a similar claim on similar grounds.

Why does this matter for other states? Because many have laws similar to the Colorado Lawful Activities Statute. For example, in Illinois, Rev. Stat. ch. 820, § 40/9 and § 55/5 prevent an employer from refusing to hire or discharging an employee for using a lawful “product” and from keeping records regarding an employee’s non-employment activities. It is only a matter of time before a case like Coats arises in another state. Colorado is leading the way on many marijuana-related issues, and the courts other states could very well rely on Colorado court decisions in determining what constitutes a “lawful product.”

It is important to note that the Coats case did not involve an employer’s right to enforce a “drug-free” work place. Even after legalization, Colorado, Illinois and various other states have maintained their laws leaving employers free to do that. Coats involved an employee’s right to use state-legal marijuana while off the clock. Thus, if the prior decisions are upheld, legalization will be much less meaningful for employees with intolerant employers.