By Laura Finley
Here we go again. Another court decision favoring businesses over human rights. Sadly, it is no shock that the Supreme Court is friendlier to business more than anything or anyone else. From its 2010 Citizens United blunder that allowed even greater corporate influence on our political process to the 2014 Hobby Lobby case affirming the “religious beliefs” of private corporations, the court’s continual siding with corporate entities over individual rights is maddening and ludicrous, but not surprising. Now, we learn that the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled in favor of employers in a case that addressed whether persons with lawful medical marijuana cards can be fired for testing positive for the substance.
In a 6-0 decision, Colorado’s highest court ruled that an employer’s zero tolerance law trumped the state’s medical marijuana legislation. The court held that employers can fire employees for testing positive for the substance even if usage was lawful under state law and occurred when the individual was off duty. Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic after a car accident, has been lawfully using medical marijuana to control leg spasms. Dish Network, his employer, fired him in 2010 after he tested positive on a random drug test. Coats had informed his employer before the test about his use of medical marijuana and displayed his state-certified medical marijuana card.
The issue, according to the court, was the state’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute, which they determined covered only activity that is lawful under both state and federal law. Since federal law still considers marijuana to be a Schedule 1 controlled substance, use of it is not protected even though state law allows it, said the court. The Supreme Courts of California, Montana and Washington—all states that have legalized medical marijuana—have ruled similarly in past. Spokespersons for Dish Network commented, “As a national employer, Dish remains committed to a drug-free workplace and compliance with federal law.” So, Coats was told that he could cease using the only legal substance that actually helped him or he could find an employer that didn’t have a zero tolerance policy. Great choices.
The Denver Post has reported that when Colorado legalized recreational marijuana last years, employers responded by expanding drug testing. So, essentially corporations determined that they would exploit the discrepancy between state and federal law. Rife with problems, workplace testing has not been found to deter illicit drug use, nor to increase workplace productivity. It doesn’t reduce absenteeism nor on-site accidents, as is often claimed. Instead, like Coats, many positive tests simply detect drug use, typically marijuana, that occurred days or even weeks ago and that has no impact on the individual’s abilities. In fact, research has shown that very tired or distracted workers are a greater risk to the workplace than are those who smoked marijuana five days prior, but no such test is administered to assess sleepiness or distractibility.
Coats is a Colorado resident. He, like the residents of the 22 other states in which medical marijuana is legal, should be confident that he won’t be arrested, fired, or otherwise face sanctions for behavior that is consistent with state law. There is no evidence that he was anything less than a good employee. Not only should all state laws be consistent on issues like this, but the federal government should take cases like that of Brandon Coats as yet even more reason to revamp its antiquated designation of marijuana. Here’s hoping that Coats’ case can further propel that movement.Φ
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.