On Monday, Colorado’s Supreme Court found it legal for a company to fire an employee who has legally smoked marijuana. The court decided against Brandon Coats, a former Dish Network employee who was fired in 2010 after testing positive for marijuana, which his doctors prescribed him to treat the muscle spasms and seizures he still experienced several years after being paralyzed in a car crash. Even though Dish Network conceded that Coats wasn’t smoking on the job, it stood by its zero-tolerance policy. While Coats’s case dealt with medical marijuana, the ruling affects nonmedical marijuana use as well—any marijuana use, even off-duty, is grounds for firing in Colorado.
However, the Coats ruling shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that employers in every state will be able to fire employees who smoke marijuana under the protection of state laws. Colorado has its own particular set of labor laws and marijuana laws that resulted in the court’s finding. Other states, with other combinations of labor and marijuana laws, might see different outcomes.
Colorado, for example, has a law stating that employees can’t be fired for engaging in any “lawful” activity, and the question was whether ingesting marijuana (even for medical reasons) was “lawful,” given that Colorado state law permits it and federal law doesn’t. The court decided that federal law took precedence, which means that Dish Network was within its rights when it fired Coats for his positive drug test. “The Coats case can be seen as a win for employers because the decision continues the trend of courts concluding that an employer can terminate an employee for testing positive,” says Barbara Johnson, an employment lawyer at the law firm Paul Hastings.