In Colorado, the government can’t punish you for smoking a joint at home on a Saturday night. But your employer still can.
On Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that medical marijuana patients can be fired for using their prescribed remedy, even if they only light up when they’re off the clock.
The case was brought by Brandon Coats, a 35-year-old quadriplegic who lost his job at Dish Network in 2010 after testing positive for THC, the intoxicating chemical in cannabis. While a marijuana high typically lasts for a matter of hours, THC can be detected in a user’s bloodstream for weeks.
Coats told ABC's Denver affiliate that he had never used the drug while at work and had received high praise for his performance as a telephone operator, right up until the day of his termination. Dish Network did not contest either of those claims, according to the Associated Press. But as the company’s attorney, Meghan Martinez, explained in arguments before the court last year, “It’s a zero-tolerance policy. It doesn’t matter if he was impaired or not.”
A car crash left Coates paralyzed when he was still in his teens. For years after the accident, he experienced violent muscle spasms and seizures that only abated in 2009, when he was first prescribed marijuana for the ailments, according to the AP.
Colorado voters approved the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in 2000, and for recreational use by adults in 2012. However, the state’s medical marijuana statute stipulates that nothing in the law “shall require any employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in a work place.”
Coats’ case rested on a separate Colorado statute that prohibits employers from firing workers for “engaging in any lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours.”
Coat’s attorney, Michael Evans, had asked the court to issue a narrow ruling that would protect employees like Coats, who work unimpaired at nonhazardous jobs, according to The Denver Post.
In a 5-1 decision, the state Supreme Court court held that “under the plain language” of the statute, “the term ‘lawful’ refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law.”
The federal government still classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug “with no currently accepted medical use.”
“We are pleased with the outcome of the court's decision today," Dish Network said in an emailed statement. "As a national employer, Dish remains committed to a drug-free workplace and compliance with federal law.”
For advocates of marijuana legalization, Dish's statement highlights two of the greatest obstacles to the freedom of pot users: Economic coercion from employers, and state coercion from the federal government.
Keith Stroup, founder of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), believes the former will be easier to combat.
“Changing the federal law would be the ultimate fix, but we’re a few years away from having sufficient congressional support,” he told msbc. “But in the short run, we can figure this out on the state level. Nobody favors the right to go to work in an impaired condition. But it’s unfair to take away someone’s career for what they did on the weekend.”
Stroup hopes in the next few years, businesses concerned with their employees’ marijuana use will test for impairment, rather than the presence of THC.
But other advocates argue that for certain jobs, a marijuana high may not even constitute impairment. While no one wants airline pilots getting high before take-off, a graphic designer who suffers from muscle spasms might perform better while taking her prescription.
“We want to end all forms of discrimination against medical cannibas patients,” Christopher Brown of Americans for Safe Access told msnbc. “There are people doing great work every day while taking medical cannabis.”
Brown believes that change on the federal level could be imminent. His optimism is based on a bill introduced by Sens. Corey Booker, Rand Paul, and Kirsten Gillibrand back in March. The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act would reclassify marijuana as a schedule II substance, and allow states to legalize marijuana for medical use without federal interference. In April, President Obama expressed tentative support for the bill in an interview with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta.
For now though, Coats and others like him will have to choose between enjoying the palliative benefits of marijuana, and the financial benefits of secure employment.
“Although I’m very disappointed today, I hope that my case has brought the issue of use of medical marijuana and employment to light," Coats said in an email to The Huffington Post. "If we’re making marijuana legal for medical purposes we need to address issues that come along with it such as employment. Hopefully views on medical marijuana – like the ones in my specific case -- will change soon.”