Legalizing marijuana: Side effects mount with states’ drug experimentation

File photo by Elaine Thompson/AP

The after-effects of November’s referendums legalizing the private use of marijuana continue to generate legal questions in Colorado and Washington court houses.

On Thursday a Colorado Court of Appeals panel ruled in favor of firing Brandon Coats—a quadriplegic medical-marijuana patient—for testing positive for marijuana despite a lack of evidence that he ever came to work high. The case focused on Colorado’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute that protects employees from termination for legal activities undertaken while not working. The court found that the protection does not apply to Coats because marijuana remains a banned Class One illegal substance under federal law.

Judge John Webb dissented from the majority opinion, finding that the Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute should apply on the grounds that both the statute and Amendment 64 legalizing private marijuana use are state laws.

A Colorado state task force examined the issue in February, recommending that employers retain the right to terminate employees for using marijuana off-the-job. An author of the report, Christian Sederberg, told The Denver Post, “We intended to leave employers to have their own policies on these issues.”

The Appeals Court decision came a day after Colorado state lawmakers attempted to set THC blood-level limits for operating a vehicle and voted out of committee a bill requiring marijuana growers and sellers to remain under a single corporate structure until October 2014.

A thousand miles to the Northwest, Washington state lawmakers grappled with a different sort of marijuana-induced judicial conundrum.

Washington state law currently defines marijuana as containing over 0.3% of the intoxicating compound delta-9 THC; anything below that threshold is considered hemp. Erik Nielson of the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab’s Forensic Lab Services Bureau described the schism between the legal and street definitions of the substance to the Associated Press, “When you smoke it, it would be very potent, but…it would be considered hemp under the law.”

Instead of testing the THC concentration of each confiscated quantity of marijuana, which remains illegal for persons under 21 years old, law enforcement officials brought House Bill 2056 to lawmakers where it received 6-3 approval by the House Government Accountability & Oversight committee. The bill changes the definition of THC concentration to distinguish the intoxicating cannabis plant from industrial hemp, the production of which the committee seeks to protect. The measure will require a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Washington State Legislature to pass per state constitutional requirements for changing constitutional amendments.

Earlier this month marijuana legalization won the support of a majority of Americans for the first time in a poll conducted by Pew Research. Since that poll the White House has published a policy report  endorsing the use of drug courts and alternatives to incarceration for individuals suffering from addiction while reaffirming the administration’s goal to eradicate marijuana production.

Legalizing marijuana: Side effects mount with states' drug experimentation