Coloradans don’t have the right to use weed off the job if their employers say they can’t, the state’s attorney general said in a recent legal filing.
In a legal brief filed in May and obtained by the media in early June, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers took the side of Dish Network, which fired a medical marijuana patient in 2010 for using legal pot in his off hours. The patient sued, and the case is now before the state Supreme Court.
Suthers argues in the brief that the vote to adopt medical marijuana in 2000 and recreational weed in 2012 weren’t intended to legalize the drug so much as to decriminalize it – despite the fact that voters were told exactly the opposite.
“Contrary to popular perception, Colorado has not simply legalized marijuana for medical and recreational purposes,” the brief says. “Instead, its citizens have adopted narrowly drawn constitutional amendments that decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for patients with a debilitating medical condition, at issue in this case, or for recreational use by adults over the age of 21.”
AG: No Right to Medical Weed
Suthers argues that this means workers have no right to use pot, even off the job, even with a prescription. If his view prevails, patients who depend on MMJ will often have to choose to between their health and jobs with strict drug-free policies.
That’s what happened to Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who uses medical weed to treat debilitating muscle spasms. Dish Network acknowledged he was a model employee, yet fired him because he used MMJ in his home, off duty.
Marijuana is legal in Colorado, as it is in Washington State. These and another 21 states have adopted medical marijuana. Yet the drug remains illegal under federal law, which classifies it as a schedule 1 controlled substance, along with such drugs as ecstasy and heroin.
That fact essentially makes it easy for employers to fire workers caught using cannabis, regardless of when they use it or whether it’s legal under state law. Strict drug-free policies are legal, and so are random drug tests like the one that snared Coats.
He sued Dish Network in 2011 for wages and benefits, alleging that his firing was illegal. The Colorado Court of Appeals sided with his former employer in a 2013 ruling, but earlier this year, the state Supreme Court agreed to review that decision.
AG Can’t Have It Both Ways
Suthers’s brief drew a harsh response from Coats’s attorney, Mike Evans, who called the attorney general’s office hypocritical for badmouthing legal weed on one hand while profiting from it on the other.
“A politically charged office like the Colorado attorney general may condemn the use of marijuana publicly, but doesn’t think twice about accepting the revenue from this allegedly ‘illegal’ activity, especially when used to eliminate deficits and balance budgets,” Evans said, referring to Suthers’s 2009 effort to collect sales tax revenue from MMJ dispensaries.
Others castigated Suthers and his brief for referring to Amendment 64 – the ballot initiative that legalized marijuana in Colorado – as decriminalization. That term applies when governments remove criminal penalties for cannabis offenses and replace them with civil penalties, usually small fines.
“I highly doubt that 55 percent of voters thought a ‘yes’ vote on Amendment 64 was a vote to merely ‘decriminalize’ and not a vote which explicitly allowed the regulated retail sale of marijuana, home cultivation, legal possession, and personal use,” said Rachel Gillette, head of NORML in Colorado. “The voters also likely had no idea that their ‘yes’ vote would be interpreted by some in government to mean that they could not legally use marijuana off-the-job or that their off-the-job use of legal marijuana could mean a loss of their job.”