The case involves Brandon Coats, a telephone operator for Dish Network. Paralyzed in a teenage car crash, he’s also been a medical marijuana patient in Colorado since 2009. Coats was fired in 2010 for failing a company drug test, though his employer didn’t claim he was ever impaired on the job.
Coats sued to get his job back, but a trial court dismissed his claim in 2011. The judge agreed with Dish Network that medical marijuana use isn’t a “lawful activity” covered by the law. Coats appealed, and the state Court of Appeals has agreed to hear the case but hasn’t set a date.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than half the states have laws that protect workers who smoke cigarettes off the clock. Colorado’s law extends to all legal activities, though Washington state doesn’t have a similar statute.
“If you’re doing it at home and it’s not illegal and it’s not impairing your work performance, you should be protected,” said Coats’ lawyer, Michael Evans.
Some employers are required by law to conduct drug testing, including in industries regulated by the U.S. Departments of Transportation, Energy and Defense. In other cases, companies or agencies that receive federal grants or contracts, including universities that get money from the Department of Education and police agencies that obtain grants from the Department of Justice, are required to maintain drug-free workplaces.
One of Washington’s biggest private employers, The Boeing Co., generally requires drug tests before employment, upon reasonable suspicion or after accidents. The Washington measure won’t change any of that, said company spokeswoman Cathy Rudolph. “The safety and integrity of our operations, products and services is paramount,” she said in an email.
For companies like Boeing without random or regular drug testing, it’s not entirely clear how such policies can be enforced.
Some lawyers are encouraging companies to take stock of their drug policies. “This is a good time for employers to revisit their policies and make sure they’re still consistent with what they want to do, and to talk with their employees about what the policies are,” said Mark Berry, an employment lawyer.
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, a Denver-based chain with locations in the two states, has no plans to revisit its drug policy. Spokesman Kevin Caulfield said the policy already covers legal drugs, such as prescription medication. Marijuana would be treated the same, he said.
“If a drug is legal, as long as it’s not abused or misused, it would not be something covered by the policy,” Caulfield said.