Disabled people can be fired for using medical marijuana, even in Colorado

Brandon Coats (Photo via Facebook)

A paralyzed man has been unable to find work after Dish Network fired him for using the drug

The broadcasting corporation Dish Network is headquartered in Colorado, where residents first voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2000. Yet it's perfectly legal for Colorado companies to fire disabled patients for using medical marijuana, as Dish has done.

In 2010, well after marijuana could legally be used as medicine in the state, Dish submitted some of their local employees to random drug tresting. Brandon Coats, among the group selected, had worked for the company for three years. A car accident years earlier left him paralyzed. Confined to a wheelchair, Coats used medical marijuana to control painful muscle spasms. He even had a state-issued license to use it. None of this mattered to Dish. 

The company fired Coats when they detected THC in his blood. Not long after, Coats sued for discrimination, beginning a long legal battle that ended up in the hands of the Colorado Supreme Court. The judges were tasked with deciding whether lawful use of marijuana outside of work hours could protect employees from strict zero-tolerance workplace policies.

“Coats consumes medical marijuana at home, after work, and in accordance with his license and Colorado state law,” the judges said in their 2015 ruling, explaining that Coats was not breaking any local laws. But because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, the Court ruled that Coats had no protections from getting fired.

“Having decided this case on the basis of the prohibition under federal law, we decline to address the issue of whether Colorado’s Medical Marijuana Amendment deems medical marijuana use ‘lawful’ by conferring a right to such use,” the court said, ruling in Dish's favor. 

Since then, Colorado’s marijuana regulations have loosened. Recreational as well as medical marijuana use are now legal in Colorado and contribute to a multi-billion dollar industry. On Thursday, to coincide with April 20, the world’s first known drive-through dispensary opened its doors in the Colorado mountain town aptly called Parachute. Dish’s policies, on the other hand, have not changed. “As a national employer, DISH remains committed to a drug-free workplace and compliance with federal law,” Dish's corporate office tells ConsumerAffairs in a brief statement, otherwise declining to comment.

Coats' life after Dish

Brandon Coats estimates that he has applied to as many as 70 jobs in the years since he was fired from Dish. Once employers discover why he lost his last job, "they kind of get a look on their face, like, I’m sorry. You’re not going to get the job,” Coats tells ConsumerAffairs. 

Coats pays his bills now with the help of his mother. Finding work as a quadriplegic was already difficult, and the $750 in disability benefits that he receives from the government isn’t nearly enough.

At Dish’s offices in Littleton, Coats counseled customers who needed help fixing their cable before the company would send a technician over to their home. "I was really good at my job,” he says. “There’s not a whole lot of things that I’m able to do. I can work the computer and work the phone, so it was the perfect job for me."

Before turning to medical marijuana, constant muscle spasms made it difficult for Coats to sit still. He began using a combination of legal medication and marijuana on the advice of other quadriplegics. "It's really common," he says.

He did not realize that Dish randomly drug-tested its employees until the day that the company selected him and about 40 others for testing. Since then, Coats says, hardly anyone will give him an interview, let alone a job. Of the dozens of places he has applied to, only one hired him -- a website that advertised marijuana dispensaries. But the site didn’t make enough money to stay in business. “It’s pretty hard to find work as a quadriplegic period,” he says, “and the lawsuit, those things together make it really hard.”

Despite that, he doesn’t regret filing the suit. The lawyer he hired warned him in advance that the case would be an uphill battle. Before then, no one knew if disabled people who need medical marijuana could be shielded from zero-tolerance employment policies. "I think it should be legalized and me bringing the lawsuit forward will help with that. Small steps."

Marijuana and injury compensation

The Patient and Caregiver Rights Litigation Project, which had filed a brief in support of Coats, made the argument in court that the federal Controlled Substances Act should not apply to legal or medical use of marijuana. 

But the courts clearly do not agree. “Since April 2016, employers have prevailed on all nine cases filed in the past 18 months by employees involving medical marijuana,” Law360 reported last year, “even in states with liberal marijuana laws, such as California, Colorado and Washington.”

Liberal marijuana laws can also conflict with workers’ compensation policies. According to a report published November by the California Workers’ Compensation Institute, injured employees can be denied benefits or even fired if marijuana is discovered in a post-accident drug screening.

As other examples, the institute cites a Washington state court decision that an employer was within its rights to fire an injured worker with marijuana in his system. And injured workers in Colorado can lose disability benefits if they fail a drug screening, the institute found. 

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