Colorado Supreme Court Says Businesses May Fire Cannabis Consumers

The justices rule that a state law protecting "lawful activities" does not cover marijuana use.


Colorado Supreme Court

Today the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously ruled that businesses in that state are free to fire employees for off-duty cannabis consumption that is allowed under state law. The case involved Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who was fired from his job with Dish Network in 2010 after he tested positive for nonpsychoactive traces of marijuana. Coats uses cannabis to relieve the seizures and muscle spasms he has suffered since he was injured in a car crash as a teenager. Such cannabis consumption was allowed by state law when he was fired but prohibited by federal law, which is still the case. Coats argued that his dismissal violated a state law that forbids employers to fire people for "any lawful activity" in which they engage on their own time outside the workplace.

The Colorado Supreme Court disagreed, affirming an appeals court ruling that said an activity is not "lawful" when it is a crime under federal law. "The term 'lawful' as it is used in [the statute] is not restricted in any way, and we decline to engraft a state law limitation onto the term," says the opinion by Justice Allison Eid. "Therefore, an activity such as medical marijuana use that is unlawful under federal law is not a 'lawful' activity under [the statute]." 

Although this case involved medical use, today's ruling has obvious implications for newly legal recreational consumers employed by cannabis-unfriendly companies. As I've said before, Dish Network's "zero tolerance" policy regarding cannabis consumption is irrational and hard to imagine in a world without pot prohibition, where employers typically would treat marijuana like alcohol. Furthermore, the company's treatment of Coats is cruel and shameful, especially because he was a competent employee whose marijuana use did not affect his job performance. Yet anyone who believes in freedom of contract has to concede that employers have a right to adopt stupid drug policies, along with any other conditions of employment that people voluntarily accept when they take a job. Legally mandated intolerance of cannabis consumers is tyrannical, but so is legally mandated tolerance.