Legal Pot Use in Colorado Could Still Get You Fired

Drug News

Medical and recreational marijuana use may be legal in Colorado, but businesses in the state still have the right to fire people who test positive for the drug, a Colorado appellate court ruled Thursday.

The Colorado Court of Appeals in Denver made its ruling in a case filed by Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who was fired by Dish Network LLC DISH -0.57% in 2010 after he tested positive for marijuana, in violation of company policy.

Mr. Coats, who has a state-issued medical-marijuana license and says he never used pot on the job, claimed in his suit that the satellite-TV provider’s policy violated a state law that bars companies from firing employees for their off-duty, “lawful activity.”

The appeals court, affirming a lower-court decision, sided with Dish in ruling that marijuana use doesn’t qualify as “lawful” because it is barred by federal law. This ruling doesn’t invalidate the state’s marijuana laws. Colorado law doesn’t “extend employment protection to those engaged in activities that violate federal law,” the court ruled.

Michael Evans, counsel for Mr. Coats, said he will appeal. “Brandon was a great employee,” Mr. Evans said. “We have the facts on our side; now, we just need the law.” Dish Network didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“We feel it is profoundly unfair to fire someone who may have smoked a joint on the weekend but is perfectly sober and productive in the workplace,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the Executive Director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for the legalization of marijuana.

Tom Bugnitz, Chief Executive of the Colorado Association for Manufacturing and Technology, said it is important to give companies the flexibility to conduct drug tests and to fire employees whose drug use raises concerns.

Companies “want to keep people from showing up at work in such a way that they endanger other employees and our products,” he said.