Can My Employer Fire Me For Medical Marijuana Use?

Just this past week the Colorado Supreme Court in a much-anticipated decision ruled that a medical marijuana patient who was fired after testing positive on a company drug test was not entitled to reinstatement.

The case made headlines back in 2010 when Brandon Coates, a quadriplegic medical marijuana patient, was fired from his job -- not for smoking pot or even being impaired while at work -- but rather for using the drug while off hours at his home.

Coates' employer didn't argue that he was impaired at work or that the drug interfered with his work product; indeed it was acknowledged that his performance reviews were all satisfactory. However, the employer's zero tolerance policy meant just that - no use of any drug even if the drug is legalized in the state and prescribed for medical purposes. And, that meant then that even if Coates used the drug at home on his own time, he "crossed the threshold" when he went to work, the drug still being in his system. The employer argued that the drug has effects and if those effects are still present in the employee while at work, then the employee is considered as "using" the drug at work.

Coates, who has been paralyzed since the age of sixteen after being involved in a severe car accident, explained that he suffers involuntary muscle spasm and seizures that cause his whole body to just seize up at anytime. While Coates used prescription drugs for years he explained that over time the effectiveness of the drugs waned. So when medical marijuana was an option available to Coates, he joined Colorado's' registry in 2009 hoping his using marijuana would help alleviate the pain.

Presently, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the federal statute intended to protect employees from certain discrimination, does not protect an employee's use of marijuana even if prescribed for medicinal purposes. And, an employer is not required to accommodate marijuana use in the workplace.

Affirming the lower court in favor of the employer, the Colorado Supreme Court acknowledged the difference between state and federal law (state law legalizing marijuana). The Court went on to say, "under Colorado's 'lawful activities statute', the term 'lawful' refers to activities that are lawful under both state and federal law. Thus, an employer may terminate a person who tests positive for marijuana even though the drug was used outside of work for medical purposes.

So, while recreational drug use at home may be legal in some states (Pennsylvania has yet to pass legislation legalizing marijuana), using the drug -recreationally or medicinally - may put your job at risk.