A three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld 2-1 the firing of Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who has a prescription for the drug in a state that permits medical marijuana, saying he was not protected from dismissal under the Colorado Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute.
The statute prohibits employers from dismissing employees who engage in legal activity outside of work, but says nothing about those who violate federal but not state law.
"Plaintiff contends that we must read 'lawful activity' to include activity that is prohibited by federal law, but not state law," said Chief Judge Janice Davidson in the divided opinion. "However, while we agree that the general purpose of [the law] is to keep an employer's proverbial nose out of an employee's off-site hours business we can find no legislative intent to extend employment protection to those engaged in activities that violate federal law."
The case illustrates the ongoing tension between federal and state authorities as voters and legislatures move to legalize medical marijuana in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act.
The conflict is likely to intensify after the passage of ballot measures in November approving recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over in Colorado and Washington.
Brian Vicente, a Denver lawyer and marijuana- decriminalization advocate, called the court's ruling "disappointing" given the recent moves by Colorado voters to legalize medical and recreational pot.
"I thought it was an inappropriate reliance on federal law -- the court used that as an 'out' to avoid a ruling based on state law," Mr. Vicente said.
At the same time, he said, the ruling underscores the need for the state legislature to update the Colorado Lawful Activities Statute, which originally was intended to protect tobacco smokers from being fired.
"We call it 'the smokers' rights statute,' but the court's take was that Colorado needs to revisit this statute to incorporate medical and now adult recreational use," Mr. Vicente said.
The Colorado legislature is now considering a package of bills designed to create a regulatory framework for recreational marijuana as required by Amendment 64, which won 55 percent of the vote in November.
Nearly 109,000 Colorado residents hold valid medical-marijuana registry cards. The most common medical condition cited for treatment is "severe pain," reported by 94 percent of cardholders, followed by "muscle spasms" at 16 percent, according to the state Department of Public Health and Environment.
Mr. Coats worked as a telephone operator for Dish Network until he was fired in 2010 for failing a drug test in violation of the company's drug policy.
In his lawsuit, Mr. Coats said he never used marijuana at work and was never under the influence of the drug while on duty.
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