The Clash of the “Drug Free Workplace” and Legal Marijuana Use


Currently, 23 states including the District of Columbia allow for some form of legal marijuana use. Two states, Colorado and Washington, allow for complete legal adult recreational use. The rest of the states allow for legal consumption of medical marijuana. This has not stopped employers from continuing to enforce their drug-free workplace environments and to screen out applicants who use marijuana, even if done so legally and during non-work hours. A recent New York Times article (which can be found here) analyzed this issue. The article highlighted that even in Washington and Colorado certain employment classified ads for businesses warned job applicants to not even bother applying if they use marijuana, even if it is done so with a medical card.

Brandon Coats sued his former employer, Dish Network, LLC, in this lawsuit, for this very reason. Coats is suing Dish Network claiming discrimination based on his 2010 termination due to his medical marijuana use. Because of a car accident when he was 16, Coats is paralyzed through 80% of his body and confined to wheelchair. He also suffers from involuntary muscle movements and various symptoms including spasms. Coats complaint states that the symptoms “adversely affect [his] ability to work and quality of life.” When Coats’ prescription medications failed to control his muscle spasms his doctor recommended beginning to use medical marijuana. Dish Network eventually requested a random drug test from Coats. The drug test came back positive and Coats attempted to explain why. Instead, Coats was terminated from his employment.

Coats based his cause of action on Section 24-34-402.5 of the Colorado Civil Rights Act that prohibits an employer from discharging an employee for “engaging in any lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours.” Coats argued that the use of medical marijuana was “lawful activity.” Coats’ complaint was dismissed for failing to state a claim because the trial court found that his medical marijuana use was not “lawful activity” under Colorado law holding that Colorado’s amendment did not establish a state constitutional right to state-licensed medical marijuana use and instead created an affirmative defense from prosecution for such use. Coats lost 2-1 appellate ruling. He is currently challenging his case in front of the Colorado Supreme Court on September 30, 2014.

A ruling in favor of Coats could have far-reaching effects on employers. As pointed out in New York Times article, Dish could no longer maintain a drug-free policy if Coats is successful and therefore could potentially risk losing federal contracts because they cannot comply with federal drug-free workplace laws.

Another case highlighted is Donna Smith v. Presbyterian Healthcare Services in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In that case, Smith was registered with New Mexico’s medical marijuana program for treatment of her post-traumatic stress disorder. Smith was hired to work for Presbyterian, but was fired four days later because she failed a drug test for marijuana. Smith has sued Presbyterian. Presbyterian in a statement said “the use of medical marijuana is not recognized by federal law and Presbyterian has a mandate under federal law to provide a drug-free workplace.”

Lastly, Augustine Stanley, a United States Army combat veteran, was fired from his long time employment as an officer at the Metropolitan detention Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico for his use of medical marijuana to relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The State Human Rights Division initially found that there was no probable cause for Stanley’s complaint of violation of the New Mexico human rights act. Stanley appealed that decision.

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