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Federal law trumps Colorado medical marijuana protections

Posted On: Jun. 15, 2015 12:00 AM CST

Colorado workers who use medical marijuana and engage in other activities permitted by state law but not federal law are not protected by the state's “lawful activities statute,” the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In Brandon Coats v. Dish Network L.L.C., Mr. Coats, a former telephone customer service representative for Englewood, Colorado-based Dish Network, argued that he was wrongfully fired for using medical marijuana, according to court records.

Mr. Coats is a quadriplegic and has a state-issued license to use medical marijuana to treat painful muscle spasms, records show. Dish Network fired him on June 7, 2010, after he tested positive for marijuana in violation of company policy.

Alleging that he only used marijuana within the limits of his license — outside of work hours and off Dish Network's property — Mr. Coats said Dish Network violated his rights under Colorado's lawful activities statute by firing him, records show. The statute “generally makes it an unfair and discriminatory labor practice to discharge an employee based on the employee's 'lawful' outside-of-work activities,” Mr. Coats argued.

But in a 2-1 decision issued on April 25, 2013, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that for an activity to be considered “lawful” in the state, it must be permitted by both state and federal law.

According to the dissenting opinion, “the term 'lawful' … refers only to Colorado state law, under which medical marijuana use is 'at least lawful.'”

The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court's ruling in an en banc decision.

“Because Coats's marijuana use was unlawful under federal law, it does not fall within (the statute's) protection for 'lawful' activities,” the state Supreme Court said.