Medical marijuana is on a popularity high across the country, now legal in 23 states, but employees using it can still find themselves in an uncomfortable legal jam when it comes to employer drug policies.
On Monday, the state Supreme Court of Colorado ruled that employers may discharge workers who use marijuana off the job, even for medical purposes. Wait, Colorado? Isn't that the state that has had medical marijuana since 2000 and is currently bathing in pot tax revenue after legalizing recreational use in 2012? Yes, but like in California, Montana and Washington, employer policies still win out over medicinal recipients, and it's sad people like Brandon Coats can be fired when these laws collide.
Coats is a quadriplegic medical marijuana user who was fired in 2010 from his job at Dish Network after he tested positive for pot in a random drug test. He told his supervisors in advance that he would probably fail the test. Coats says he's never used the drug or been under its influence at work, and Dish has not disputed this.
Colorado law protects employees from being fired for engaging in lawful activities outside of work, such as smoking cigarettes. That was Coats' defense. But judges ruled that this law applies only to activities legal on both the state and federal level, and marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Also, Colorado's state constitution allows employers to keep old policies regarding drug use.
From a medical standpoint, Coats is, rather unfortunately, a perfect candidate for medicinal marijuana. He told local Denver TV news stations that the drug helps the violent muscle spasms he has had ever since being paralyzed from the chest down in a car crash.
The point of medical marijuana is to use the benefits of the drug to help those in need. The point of Dish's zero-tolerance policy is presumably to keep a drug-free workspace and workforce. Coats is in the crosshairs of a battle between new and old, revolution and tradition.
This case has set a lamentable precedent in which some of those for whom medicinal marijuana is prescribed must choose between receiving the relief the drug provides or keeping their jobs. Changes must be made so that those who have been offered a chance for relief can actually take it.
Christopher Leelum, a student at Stony Brook University, is an intern with Newsday Opinion and amNew York.