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Colorado Supreme Court Subordinates Employee Rights to Employer Policies on Medical Marijuana

Published by on July 22, 2015

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled on June 15, 2015 that an employee of Dish Network who was terminated in 2010 for failing a company marijuana test was fired legally, despite the fact that Colorado law allows individuals to use marijuana for medical reasons. The employee in question is a quadriplegic who had obtained a medical […]

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled on June 15, 2015 that an employee of Dish Network who was terminated in 2010 for failing a company marijuana test was fired legally, despite the fact that Colorado law allows individuals to use marijuana for medical reasons.

The employee in question is a quadriplegic who had obtained a medical authorization from his physician to use marijuana and had been doing so since 2000. Both the employee and the employer in the case agreed that the fired employee had not used the drug or been under its influence while at work, and had used marijuana exclusively on his own time.

Nonetheless, Dish Network maintained a zero-tolerance drug policy and pointed out that use of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Since the employee failed the mandatory (and legal) workplace drug test, Dish Network maintained that it acted fully within its rights in responding to the finding with termination.

Colorado does have a law that protects employees from being fired for engaging in “lawful activities” but the Colorado Supreme Court concluded that the statute is only applicable when the activities are clearly lawful under both state and federal law. Therefore, the court stated in its decision that “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 ruling in the case only applies to Colorado and its impact could be changed in the future if the Colorado legislature responds by enacting new protections for marijuana users. However, the questions raised extend far beyond Colorado.

For example, New York state law bans employers from terminating employees simply for being medical marijuana patients, but does not address the question of how an employee would be treated if they failed a workplace drug test. Furthermore, employees in many positions that are under additional federal regulation (such as truck drivers, train engineers and government contractors) remain under strict drug-free requirements regardless of changes in state and local law.

Laconic Lookout:

While the Colorado case gives employers some reason to be assured that strict drug-free workplace policies will remain protected when cases arise pitting them against employee behaviors that may be protected by state or local laws, the reality is that the landscape is complicated and constantly shifting.

Employers should perform a review of their drug-free workplace policies and employee disciplinary procedures with an eye toward clarifying the legal and business basis for their policies, and work to ensure that employees are given ample and regular communication regarding the full nature and scope of workplace rules that may apply to personal conduct (such as non-workplace drug use) that can result in discipline or termination.

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