The Mile High State Just Got Knocked Down a Few Inches


Personal convictions aside, marijuana is legal for both medical and recreational use in the state of Colorado. Since the passage and subsequent enactment of Amendment 63 in November of 2012, adults aged 21 and older may legally grow marijuana, sell marijuana, and possess up to an ounce of marijuana in the state. Note – for the sake of simplicity, we won’t get into all of the details of the new law and will just stick with a basic overview. But, marijuana may not be taken outside of the state’s boundaries and it is banned from the Denver International Airport. Additionally, marijuana is only legal for private usage; smoking pot publicly can result in a fine or in an arrest.

The legalization of marijuana has brought with it new laws and new challenges regarding the manufacture, sale, and consumption of marijuana. Companies have been forced to reassess their drug and alcohol policies in accordance to the newly enacted amendment. On Wednesday, the Colorado Supreme Court addressed the questions employees and company administrators alike have been grappling with before and after the legalization of the drug.

According to the Colorado Supreme Court, the Plaintiff, Brandon Coates, was fired from his position at Dish Network after testing positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. He appealed his case all the way up to the state’s supreme court on the grounds that his termination violated his right to engage in “lawful activity” outside the workplace. The court sought to decide whether or not medical marijuana usage is understood as “legal activity” in this situation. In doing so, the court would ultimately also help employers and employees better understand marijuana laws and help them in meshing their internal drug policies and usage rules with their employees’ freedom, or lack thereof, to use the drug.

The court ruled that Mr. Coates’ termination was fully legal under the state’s law. His contract with Dish Network was violated when he tested positive for THC and thus, Dish acted well within the law when they terminated his employment. As long as employees are under a working contract that explicitly states they are subject to drug tests and what drugs are on their banned substance list, employees may be sanctioned or terminated if they fail their required drug screenings, regardless of the legality of the drug used. The court’s decision allows companies to keep drug-testing policies that test for traces of THC and other substances. If an employee is found with THC in his system, he is most emphatically liable to sanctions according to the ruling.

However, many argue that the new precedent is unjust due to the fact that tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, stays in your system far longer than traces of alcohol. Alcohol is out of your system within a period of hours whereas chemicals left behind after smoking or consuming marijuana stay in the system for days, and in some cases, even weeks. According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse, THC can stay in your system anywhere from ten to forty- five days after consumption. This being the case, employees and their lawyers argue that these contractual restrictions are a direct violation of their right to engage in legal activity and are biased against marijuana users. Technically, one could test positive for THC on Thursday morning from consuming marijuana on the previous Friday night after work. Another could also test positive for THC from smoking pot the morning of the test. The two individuals’ situations are far different, but under the law, they are both liable to be terminated on the spot. Scenarios like these present difficult challenges that states and local governments discuss and negotiate. For now, Colorado’s stance is clear. But, this interesting debate about interpretation and implementation of marijuana laws will continue in Colorado and other states that have legalized the drug. It will be interesting to hear further cases and their subsequent rulings as lawmakers and voters anxiously navigate this unchartered territory.

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