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Marijuana is Still Illegal in Colorado…Quadriplegic Fired from Job for Off-Duty Use

Colorado – The Colorado Supreme Court handed down a 6-0 decision in favor of Dish Networks INC. The case – Brandon Coats V. Dish Networks – hinged on Colorado’s Lawful Off-Duty Statute to guide the court’s decision to absolved Dish Networks of any wrongful termination liability, after the company dismissed Mr. Coats, a quadriplegic call center employee, for testing positive for THC, the psychoactive drug found in the cannabis plant.

The Lawful Off-Duty Statute protects citizens from repercussions in the workplace because of off-duty consumption of lawful substances such as alcohol, nicotine, and doctor prescribed medication.

However, according to the Supreme Court, the Lawful Off-Duty Statute does not apply to Mr. Coats.  Justice Allison H. Eid says in her opinion: “Employees who engage in an activity, such as medical marijuana use, that is permitted by state law but unlawful under federal law are not protected by the lawful off-duty statute.”  

Today’s decision ends five years of litigation since Dish fired Coats in May of 2010.
Mr. Coats challenged his dismissal, but both the district trial court and the Colorado court of appeals agreed with Dish Networks’ decision.  And as of Monday morning, the Colorado Supreme Court becomes the third court to rule in favor of Dish Networks against its former employee, Brandon Coats.

Brandon Coats at Courthouse, Liberty News

Brandon Coats at the State Courthouse, Liberty News


Current Colorado law allows employers to set their own drug policies regardless of state law. The only exception would be if a drug falls under the Lawful Off-Duty Statute, which only pertains to drugs that are legal both on the federal and state level. This includes nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol…or any drugs that are prescribed by a state licensed doctor, which does not include doctors who prescribe medical cannabis, because the law only protects prescriptions that have known medical value and are approved by the FDA. According to the head of the DEA, Michele Leonhart, medical cannabis does not have medical value; and therefore, it still sits at the top of the DEA’s controlled substances schedule with other tenants like methamphetamine, PCP, and heroin, while leaving cocaine in the schedule II category.

Michael Evans,  the attorney for Brandon Coats, referred to the court’s decision as devastating, stating that “for people like Brandon Coats, there really isn’t a choice, as medical marijuana is the only substance both he and his Colorado licensed physician know of to control his seizures due to quadriplegia. He has to have it.”


Attorney Michael D. Evans with client Brandon Coats

Attorney Michael D. Evans with client Brandon Coats

The Colorado Supreme Court states in their decision that they do not want to change Colorado law on this issue, nor the language contained within the Lawful Off-Duty Statute.
There is no evidence in the Constitution to offer guidance regarding the use of experimental drugs.
In Rutherford v. United States, the Supreme Court cites cases that established the right for a patient to choose whether or not to pursue a certain course of treatment; however, that choice – the patient’s right to select a particular treatment or medication – has traditionally fallen within the jurisdiction of the FDA.

The Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 states that an employer who receives federal assistance or is issued government contracts must be drug-free, or risk having those contracts voided and funding withdrawn.

The only legal remedy for Mr. Coats, and others like him, would be for the Colorado Legislature to change the language of the Lawful Off-Duty Statute, placing it under the umbrella of state law. However, the federal government could decriminalize cannabis, removing its schedule 1 status, and vindicating Mr. Coat’s use of the drug as a part of his rights afforded by Colorado’s Lawful Off-Duty Statute.

Attorney and founding member of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML), Keith Stroup, says in an article published by The Cannabist: “What we really need is for employers in these legalized states to become responsible corporate citizens and do the right thing.” He goes on to say that “most Americans would strongly support the right of an employer to fire anyone who comes to work in an impaired condition. But smoking marijuana leaves one mildly impaired for about an hour and a half; certainly smoking marijuana in the evening, or on the weekend, would have no impact on the employee who comes to work the following day.”

Even though the effects dissipate far more rapidly than alcohol, remnants of THC can remain present in the body’s urine for at least thirty days after use, where as, more dangerous drugs like cocaine and heroine will be absent from urine and blood samples after four days.

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