Russell Hebets June 16, 2015

Yesterday, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that employees can be fired for using medical marijuana when they are off the clock.

Coats v. Dish Network

This decision was the final word on the case Coats v. Dish Network. Brandon Coats is a quadriplegic who has been a medical marijuana patient since 2009. He worked as a telephone customer service representative for Dish Network from 2007 to 2010. In May of 2010, Coats tested positive in a random drug test for THC, the mind-altering agent of marijuana. In June of 2010, Dish fired Coats for violating their drug policy. Coats brought a suit against the company, arguing he had been wrongfully terminated. The trial court dismissed his claim, and the Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s ruling.

Medical marijuana, not recreational

It is important to note that this case focuses on medical marijuana, not recreational usage. As mentioned, Coats has had a medical marijuana license for several years. Coats’ position was distinctive because he had a documented need for medical marijuana. This case may not have made it this far if the issue had been over recreational use of the drug. But because of Coats’ situation, this case found traction. Coats had widespread backing from supporters of medical marijuana.

Coats’ Argument

Coats argued that he was wrongfully terminated from Dish Network because of a Colorado statute that protects employees engaging in lawful activity outside of work. It is considered discriminatory in Colorado for an employer to fire an employee because that employee engaged in any lawful activity while the employee was not on the employer’s premises during non-working hours. Coats argued that this statute applied in his case. Medical marijuana has been legal in Colorado since 2001, and Coats claimed he only consumed the marijuana while off the clock, in accordance with his license and Colorado law. Thus, Coats contended that this statute protected him from termination on those grounds.

Dish’s contentions

Dish Network fired Coats because by testing positive for THC, Coats violated Dish’s drug-free work policy. It was their argument that medical marijuana is not a “lawful activity” under state or federal law, and therefore its use is not protected by Colorado statutes.

Federal law trumps state law

The constitutional amendment legalizing the use of medical marijuana in Colorado does not require employers to allow the use of medical marijuana in the workplace. When reviewing the case, the Supreme Court justices found that this amendment does not delve into what happens when medical marijuana patients use marijuana outside the workplace. Further, the Court found that the statute protecting employees from termination because of engagement in a lawful activity does not define what “lawful activity” is. Here, all six justices agreed that because marijuana is illegal at the federal level, while legal in Colorado, the statute does not include medical marijuana as a lawful activity. In California, Montana, and Washington, high courts have ruled in a similar fashion. Federal law overrides state law.


Unfortunately for Coats, this is where his case ends. His attorneys were doubtful the U.S. Supreme Court would find in their favor, since the Colorado Supreme Court did not. However, this decision has far-reaching implications. Now, if you are a medical marijuana patient, you can get fired for using it in your home when you are not working. Over 100,000 people in Colorado have medical marijuana licenses. Because of this court ruling, those individuals might have to make the choice between their job and their medical treatment. As one of Coats’ attorneys said, the job is now with the state legislators to provide protection for these citizens.