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Employers Can Fire Workers Who Use Medical Marijuana, Colo. Court Rules

?Colorado employers can fire employees who use medical marijuana off the job, even though the drug is legal under state law, the Colorado Supreme Courtruled today. The decision upheld a lower court's ruling that Dish Network did not act illegally when it fired employee Brandon Coats after he tested positive for marijuana.

Coats, a quadriplegic who used medical marijuana to help with seizures, was fired from Dish Network in 2010 after failing a drug test. Coats had worked for the company for three years and never used the drug on the job. He sued Dish Network, arguing that his use of the substance was legal because Colorado law permits the use of medical marijuana. Under Colorado's Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute, employers may not discriminate against employees for engaging in legal, off-duty conduct.

However, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 substance�the same classification as heroin and LSD�and is therefore illegal under federal law. "The Supreme Court holds that under�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," the decision states.

The case is the latest in a number of lawsuits related to marijuana use in the workplace. Although 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana use, judges�and employers�often defer to federal law, which makes no exceptions for marijuana use. Colorado's Constitution also states that employers do not need to amend their policies to accommodate users of medical marijuana. This means that some employees may have to choose between using the drug to treat their ailments and keeping their jobs, Coats' attorney told news outlets.

Similar wrongful discrimination and termination cases have been brought before state courts in California, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, but all decisions have been in favor of the employer. Although the decision in Coats' case only sets precedent in Colorado, it has ramifications for other states that have legalized marijuana use: workplace drug issues cannot be resolved at the state level.

For a comprehensive look at the legal and cultural aspects of marijuana in the workplace, look for the upcoming cover story, A Guide to Marijuana in the Workplace, in the July issue of Security Management.