The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that employers may terminate employees for off-duty medical marijuana use. Coats v. Dish Network, LLC, 2015 CO 44 No. 13 SC394 (Colo. 2015).

Brandon Coats worked as a telephone customer service representative for Dish Networks. He is a quadriplegic and obtained a state-issued medical marijuana license to treat painful muscle spasms resulting from his quadriplegia. Dish fired Coats for violating the company’s drug policy when he tested positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Coats filed suit against Dish alleging wrongful termination pursuant to C.R.S. § 24-34-402.5, which prohibits employers from terminating employees based on an employee’s engagement in “lawful activities” outside the workplace. The question before the state’s high court was whether Coats’ use of medical marijuana was a “lawful activity” under the statue when marijuana use is illegal under federal law.

The court rejected Coats’ proffered interpretation of the statute – namely, that the legislature intended “lawful” to mean “lawful under Colorado state law” – because the language of the statute did not indicate an intent to restrict the term to state law or to apply to activities that are lawful under state law but unlawful under federal law. As a result, the court deemed the term “lawful” to include both state and federal law.

The court’s holding clarifies a blurry area of the law in the wake of Amendment 64. Employers can enforce zero-tolerance drug policies with respect to medical marijuana without violating Colorado’s Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute.