Cannabis in America

Can You Be Fired for Legal Marijuana Use?

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In Colorado and thinking about smoking marijuana after work? Might want to reconsider that. Even though many Colorado residents qualify to use medical marijuana regularly, it can carry many consequences for consumers. In a landmark Colorado Supreme Court decision, Coats v. Dish Network, the court decided that employers can now lawfully terminate employees for using medical marijuana, even if they are off the clock.

This case originated in 2010 when Dish Network fired an employee, Brandon Coats, for not passing a random drug test. Testing positive for marijuana went against the company’s “zero-tolerance” drug policy. Coats is a quadriplegic who is licensed to use medical marijuana under Colorado state law to help ease the pain of his muscle spasms. He claims that he never used marijuana while working, nor was he ever high at work. Coats filed the lawsuit claiming that his rights were violated since he is legally allowed to use marijuana in the state of Colorado, so this should not affect his status of employment.

In a unanimous decision, all six judges ruled in favor of Dish Network, stating that the company was in the right when it let go of Coats. This case sets a precedent for future workplace conflicts over the matter. Medical marijuana is legal in Colorado, as well as recreational marijuana, but it is still illegal in all forms under federal law. Federal law trumps state law and so despite some people being able to obtain licenses to use medical marijuana, they still have to obey their employers’ drug policies.

Colorado is one of the most liberal states in the United States when it comes to marijuana use, as it legalized the medical consumption of it in 2001, and the recreational use of it became legal in 2012.  Marijuana use in Colorado has become ubiquitous. Doctors prescribe medical marijuana to patients for a multitude of reasons, such as to help combat the nausea induced by chemotherapy, to treat seizure disorders, or to curb the poor appetite and weight loss associated with HIV. People can grow the plant in their basements and there are dispensaries throughout many of the major cities. People can even take yoga classes focused on marijuana or marijuana themed cooking classes. Reports state that the legalization of cannabis has caused crime rates to decrease, lowered unemployment rates, and has contributed to greater economic growth thanks to the enormous tax revenues that the sales have created.

This decision will clear up many issues in Colorado, although it could also cause tensions to rise among citizens throughout the state and the whole country. Seeing how this case will impact other states’ decisions regarding the workplace and the use of medical marijuana will be interesting, considering that 23 other states have legalized it for medical consumption so far. To avoid future legal problems, this decision will likely prompt other companies to devise new drug policies so it is clear what they expect of their employees.

Toni Keddell
Toni Keddell is a member of the University of Maryland Class of 2017 and a Law Street Media Fellow for the Summer of 2015. Contact Toni at



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