Medical Marijuana in the Workplace: The New Decision by the Colorado Supreme Court

Jun 26, 2015 | WC & Other Laws

Last week, Denver disability lawyers and Denver disability attorneys were given new direction by the Colorado Supreme court regarding cases that have to do with employees who use medical marijuana outside of work. Workplace drug policy is, of course, at the discretion of specific employers because Colorado is an at-will state. However, medical marijuana use has been a hotly contested question simply because of the nature of the contradiction between state and federal law on the subject.

Amendment 64 to the Colorado Constitution made it legal for laypersons to purchase recreational marijuana but still maintained that employers may choose to limit its use in the workplace. The same way employers can fire an employee for workplace intoxication, employers can fire employees for having smoked recreational marijuana in the workplace. With at-will states, employers or employees can terminate employment for almost any reason they want.

When an employee is prescribed any number of medications, he or she may continue their work within the bounds of the medication, assuming the treating physician prescribed medication that will not interfere with a worker’s responsibilities. Pain killers, many of which are substituted by medical marijuana, as it is prescribed most commonly for chronic pain, often cause debilitating side-effects that make many forms of physical labor difficult to impossible. Medical marijuana is seen by its proponents as a gentler, more workable pain reliever than narcotics. It would be laughable to imagine an employer firing an employee for taking prescription pain killers on the job but medical marijuana is clearly a prescription that would raise a few eyebrows on the job.

Related: Can Marijuana Drug Use Cause A Disability Claim To Be Denied In Colorado?

The Colorado Court of Appeals heard a case called Coats v. Dish Network, where Coats showed traces of marijuana in his system in a random drug screening and he was fired due to the company’s policy on marijuana use in the workplace. To be clear, Coats had not used the substance at work, he merely had the drug in his system. Coats’ lawyers made the argument that the spirit of the Amendment to the Colorado Constitution is that marijuana, when prescribed by a physician, is a legitimate pain killer and should not be the basis of a decision to fire someone. The Attorney General, on the other hand, stressed how important it was to allow employers a drug-free workplace.

The case, which was escalated to the Colorado Supreme Court, was decided last week in the favor of Dish Network, whose attorneys interpreted the law to mean that Mr. Coats was not partaking in a lawful activity when he consumed medical marijuana outside of work and tested positive at work for the substance. Lawful activities, as interpreted by the Colorado Supreme Court in this case, must be legal under both state and federal laws. Marijuana, medical or otherwise, is decidedly illegal under federal law, which would make Mr. Coats’s activities at and around work illegal.

As many Denver workers’ compensation attorneys will hold, workplaces have different rules about drug and alcohol use. Some workplaces will allow for occasional alcohol use at work. Certain workplaces might even encourage the use of marijuana at or around work. Medical marijuana dispensaries, for example, would probably be very pro-medical marijuana use at or around work.

This decision by the Colorado Supreme Court may seem a blow to the freedom of workers and physicians to take whatever medication they see fit that is legal on a state level. However, while at first it may seem this is a blow to workers’ rights, every story has more than one side. The Colorado Attorney General sees this move as upholding the right of a workplace to keep the work environment as drug-free as it pleases. The real question for workers like Mr. Coats and others who were prescribed medicinal marijuana for any reason is how to find a work environment that fits their needs with policies in line with their personal values.

Workers’ Compensation can be difficult, confusing, and very complex. Kaplan Morrell has helped thousands of injured workers since 1997 get the benefits they deserve. Contact us here or call us at 303-780-7329 for your free consultation.