Many observers were shocked and saddened when Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who is authorized to use medical marijuana under Colorado state law, was fired from his job with Dish Network in 2010 after a positive drug test. Dish failed to make an exception for Coats, who used marijuana while off duty to control his seizures, and the company insisted on his being fired, leaving Coats no choice but to challenge this issue in court.
Specifically, Coats claimed that his conduct should have been permitted under the state’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute, which makes it an unfair and discriminatory labor practice to discharge an employee based on the employee’s “lawful,” away-from-work activities. But the trial court, followed by the Court of Appeals and now the Colorado Supreme Court, have all ruled that the statute only protects conduct that is legal under both state and federal law — and therefore offers no job protection to Coats.
“Therefore, 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 statute,” Justice Allison H. Eid wrote in the opinion.
This case highlights one of the most pressing issues that needs to be addressed in the states that have legalized medical cannabis use — and the states that have adopted full legalization for all adults, as well. Although employees are protected from arrest and prosecution under state law by these various laws, they remain vulnerable to employment discrimination in almost all states.
Simply put, if an employer wants to insist on what they frequently call a “drug-free workplace,” they are legally permitted to do that — regardless of the unfairness this policy may cause, because we must note that they do not apply those same standards to off-job alcohol consumption or the use of prescription drugs.
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 only 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.
Effort renewed to add PTSD to Colorado medical marijuana list
(Craig F. Walker, Denver Post file)
What we really need is for employers in these legalized states to become responsible corporate citizens and to do the right thing: Stop penalizing employees, absent a showing of impairment on the job. But absent that voluntary shift in policy, the obligation is now on those of us who favor marijuana legalization to go back to the state legislatures in states that have legalized cannabis, either for medical use or for all adults, and enact appropriate job protections for those who use marijuana legally under state law.
Before being allowed to fire an employee who tests positive for THC, the employer must be required to demonstrate on-the-job impairment. Just as we do not permit someone to be fired for reason of their gender, religion or race, neither should we permit an employee to be fired simply because they elect to use marijuana legally under state law, without a showing of actual on-job impairment.
Otherwise we are requiring many medical-use patients to choose between relieving their pain and suffering and keeping their employment. And we are allowing employers to fire good, hard-working, loyal employees for off-the-job activities that are totally unrelated to their job performance.
And that is simply unfair, and it cannot be allowed to stand. So let’s get to work and fix this problem.
Keith Stroup is an attorney, author of “It’s NORML to Smoke Pot: The 40-year Fight for Marijuana Smokers’ Rights” and founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, where he serves as legal counsel.
Members of the Colorado Supreme Court have unanimously affirmed lower courts’ rulings that employers possess the authority to fire employees for their off-the-job use of marijuana. The Court found that the plant’s legal status under state law does not make the act of consuming cannabis “lawful” under the state’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute.
The Justices opined, “The supreme court holds that under the plain language of section 24-34-402.5, C.R.S. (2014), Colorado’s ‘lawful activities statute,’ the term ‘lawful’ refers only to those activities that are lawful under both state and federal law. Therefore, 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 statute.”
The ruling upholds the decision by Dish Network in 2010 to fire employee Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who used cannabis to treat muscle spasticity. Coats failed a random urine screen. Such tests identify the presence of the inert metabolite (byproduct) carboxy-THC, which may be present in urine for weeks or even months after one has ceased using the substance. Consequently, the Justice Department acknowledges, “A positive test result, even when confirmed, only indicates that a particular substance is present in the test subject’s body tissue. It does not indicate abuse or addiction; recency, frequency, or amount of use; or impairment.”
The Colorado decision mirrors those of courts in California, Oregon, and Washington — each of which similarly determined that state laws exempting marijuana consumers from criminal liability do not extend to civil protections in the workplace.
According to a study published last year in the Journal of Addictive Diseases, employees who test positive for carboxy-THC do not possess an elevated risk of workplace accident compared to employees who test negative.
Full text of the decision, Coats v. Dish Network, is here.
Two recent developments illustrate the progress we have made towards ending marijuana prohibition, and the new challenges we face as we push forward into this Brave New World of legalized weed.
In a handful of states, instead of worrying about whether those who grow marijuana will be arrested and jailed, we have the luxury of worrying about such things as whether the marijuana was sprayed with unhealthy pesticides during the cultivation process, and how to minimize the impact the odor from marijuana cultivation sites may have on the neighbors.
Let’s start with the pesticide issue.
One of the principal public health advantages that legalization brings is the ability to require that marijuana be tested by a certified lab before it is sold, assuring the consumer that it is free from potentially harmful insecticides and pesticides. At NORML, as a consumer lobby, this is something we have always supported, but so long as marijuana remained illegal, those protections were impossible to implement. In fact, in states where marijuana prohibition remains intact, any laboratory that tested the product would be risking criminal prosecution for possession and conspiring to sell marijuana. And any elected official, when confronted with this suggestion, would have laughed us out of their office. There is simply no mechanism for assuring the safety or purity of illegal substances, so legalization is a necessary precursor.
But now that marijuana is fully legal in four states; fully decriminalized in Washington, DC; and legalized for some version of medical use in 37 states, this common-sense step to assure the product is safe is feasible.
Breaking with their traditional position that so long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law, they would not provide guidance as to which pesticides and insecticides were safe for marijuana, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced they are offering a process under which certain pesticides could be approved for use on marijuana, in those states that now permit legal marijuana use for medical purposes, or for all adults.
This has already surfaced as an issue in Colorado, where the state has reportedly quarantined tens of thousands of marijuana plants because of concerns the crop was doused in harmful chemicals. Without some guidance from the EPA, the licensed growers are caught between their need to protect against infestations such as spider mites, powdery mildew and root rot, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost inventory; and the demands of state regulators and the public for a safe product. Concerned consumers have begun picketing certain retail outlets in CO, claiming they are putting their customers at risk because of their use of pesticides, and advocating for the use of organic pest controls.
This new process announced by the EPA appears to offer a relatively quick process for legal growers to learn which pesticides are safe for use on marijuana, and which are not. The director of the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Division of Plant Industry has called this regulatory shift “a huge step forward for the EPA, the industry and us. It allows us to move forward in a very normal manner on pesticides for marijuana, just like any other crop.” An important step towards NORMLization of marijuana.
Next, let’s consider the problem with marijuana odor potentially effecting the quality of life of the neighbors.
Some contentiousness between marijuana growers and their neighbors has been simmering for some time, even under prohibition, but with the advance of full legalization, those problems are gaining more attention. And different jurisdictions are dealing with this problem differently.
In Oregon, a state with a “right to farm” statute, farmers are protected from nuisance complaints that might arise because of “customary noises, smells, dust or other nuisances associated with farming.” But that has not kept some neighbors from complaining, and some are asking that growers be required to have a set-back from the adjacent property where marijuana cannot legally be grown, to protect neighbors from the strong odor of marijuana in the late growing cycle and the harvesting period, which some neighbors claim keeps them inside during those times.
And in Colorado, the small town of Basalt in Pitkin County, only a few miles outside of Aspen, is the site of High Valley Farms, a 25,000 square foot indoor cultivation center that supplies one of the 6 retail outlets (the Silverpeak Apothecary) in Aspen. Because of public complaints about the odor of marijuana, the Pitkin County Commissioners have issued a stern warning to High Valley Farms to eradicate the marijuana odor that has infuriated nearby neighbors, or face the termination of their agricultural license when it comes up for renewal in September. The license was granted with the condition that the farm would not emit any smells to the detriment of the lifestyle of nearby residents.
In addition to the complains about the impact on the quality of life, a number of Basalt property owners have also complained that their property values have declined and “what smells like money” to the cultivation center “smells like property devaluation” to the home owners. The CEO of High Valley Farms has acknowledged some technical problems with their smell-mitigation technology, but has promised the problem will be resolved within a few weeks. They obviously have a strong financial incentive to resolve the problem, and quickly.
So while these two new issues are real, there are solutions available and they must be quickly implemented by those in the industry. The pioneers who hold the licenses in this new industry must not be allowed to put the health of consumers at risk, or diminish the quality of life of their neighbors, in their rush to get rich. They must demonstrate they are responsible corporate citizens, or be replaced by others who will.
Members of the United States Senate Appropriations Committee voted by a margin of 2 to 1 today in favor of language limiting the Justice Department’s ability to take criminal action against state-licensed operations that are acting in full compliance with the medical marijuana laws of their states. The provision was offered as an amendment by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in the Senate version of the Fiscal Year 2016 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill.
The Senate amendment mirrors language approved by the House last week in their version of the CJS bill.
Passage of the provision reauthorizes protections signed into law last year, but which are set to expire this September.
A vote by the full Senate and reconciliation with the House is necessary before the 2016 spending bill is transmitted to the President.
The anti-marijuana zealots in this country have always been entertaining, but I have lately noticed the appearance of some new defenders of prohibition, making Reefer Madness claims reminiscent of the earliest years of prohibition.
Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was the principal architect of the Reefer Madness strategy aimed at demonizing marijuana and marijuana smokers.
In the American Magazine in 1937, in an article entitled “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth,” he wrote:
“An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida. When officers arrived at the home, they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze… He had no recollection of having committed the multiple crimes. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason. The boy said that he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called ‘muggles’ a childish name for marijuana.”
While today we all laugh when we read those words, at the time the average citizen knew almost nothing about marijuana, nor did members of Congress, and it was with that absurd and uninformed mindset that Congress passed marijuana prohibition with little debate in 1937.
Today no rational person would treat those claims as serious or credible. Millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens smoke marijuana responsibly with no harm to themselves or anyone else, and the average citizen is far more familiar with marijuana and understand it is a mild intoxicant that is far less dangerous than alcohol, and should be similarly legalized and regulated.
Yet the clowns keep coming out of the circus car, one after another.
In one recent example, media curmudgeon Ben Stein published a column on the right-wing website The American Spectator, entitled “Marijuana Is A Cancer.” From that incredible start (ironic in light of research suggesting THC is helpful in treating several types of cancer), Stein describes a 27-year-old unnamed family friend whom he says has destroyed his life because of his marijuana smoking.
“Marijuana ate this young man’s soul. It was very much like that movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where space aliens invade the bodies of humans. I have never known any chronic user of the chronic whose ambitions and good sense have not been either demolished or very substantially lessened by the use of the weed. It is eating up the soul of the nation altogether.”
And in case anyone did not yet understand his views on marijuana, Stein added: “The most bitter enemies of the United States could not have imagined a more wicked attack on a society based on individual initiative than the mass use of marijuana. To think we have a President in favor of its legalization, a Mayor of Gotham who is a huge proponent of the poison, a rap culture that celebrates this vile poison, is heart breaking.”
How’s that for trying to out-do Anslinger!
But Stein is not the only alarmist resurrecting the Anslinger rhetoric.
In March of this year drug advisor and televangelist Pat Robertson opined on marijuana on his CBN program “The 700 Club,” saying marijuana smoking is “slavery to vegetables.” According to Robertson “Cocaine is the product of a vegetable, alcohol is the product of a vegetable, marijuana is a vegetable. … And yet, people are enslaved to vegetables,” adding God could set you free from this vegetable slavery.
Thank God we have the guidance of Robertson to help us fight this new scourge of vegetable addiction!
Apparently it is circus season, and we can only look forward to more of these clowns surprising us with their insightfulness on marijuana and marijuana policy. It almost makes me long for Kevin Sabet and his warnings about “big marijuana” taking over after legalization. At least Sabet recognizes his tired, exaggerated claims about the dangers of marijuana smoking are no longer effective, and he has decided to challenge the free market system.
Good luck with that, Kevin.