Undoing Colorado’s Unjust Marijuana Ruling


I have seen the pain the eyes of fellow cannabis law reform advocates, particularly those from California, when I have stated that Colorado is now leading the cannabis revolution. By jumping out first with licensed and regulated sales and bringing marijuana into the mainstream of government regulation and taxation, Colorado is seen across the country as the new “Marijuana Mecca” as Colorado’s cannabis commerce makes news across the nation.

Unfortunately, even in the state known as the cannabis commerce capital of the United States, medical marijuana patients can still be fired from their jobs, even when their use of cannabis had absolutely no impact upon their job performance. The right to work has to be one of the cannabis community’s next goals if we are ever to have true equality.

As Time Magazine explains, the firing of Colorado medical marijuana patient Brandon Coats could have national implications and he certainly made for a sympathetic client:

Although the case is limited to Colorado, the court’s decision has national ramifications. Previous cases in California, Montana, Oregon, and Washington all swung for the employer, but the Colorado case was seen as the best chance for a ruling in favor of medical marijuana patients–and not just because of the state’s embrace of medical and recreational pot.

For one, Coats was a particularly sympathetic plaintiff. The 35-year-old has been quadriplegic since a car accident at age 16 and has been considered a model employee since being hired by Dish in 2007. In 2009, Coats obtained a state-issued license and began using medical marijuana at night, after work. “I take it at home every night,” he said in an interview last year. “It helps me sleep. I wake up with less stiffness, and it quiets my spasms all through the next day.” By sleeping off the psychoactive effects, he could report to work clear-headed the next day while the antispasmodic effects of the drug continued to calm his system. In 2010, Coats was selected for a random drug test. He came up positive for marijuana–as he told his boss he would–and was fired soon after for violating Dish’s anti-drug policy.

Andrew Rosenthal declares the firing of medical marijuana patients unjust and urges for a federal solution in The New York Times:

Marijuana was legal for medical purposes in 2010 with the proper authorization, which Mr. Coats had. But the court said the law only applied to activities that were legal under both state and federal law.

There are signs that the ice is starting to crack a bit in Washington. In June, the conservative-dominated House of Representatives voted 242-186 to prevent the federal government from blocking states that want to permit medical use of marijuana.

But the country needs a real solution on this issue and that will only come when Congress repeals the federal marijuana laws, which have no real grounding in medicine or logic, and are racist in their application – destroying the lives of millions of African-Americans while having almost no impact on white Americans, who smoke pot with the same frequency.

Andrew Rosenthal is likely right, that employment equality can ultimately only come from the federal level. So long as the federal government classifies marijuana as illegal, businesses will be free to fire medical marijuana patients like Colorado’s Brandon Coats, despite the fact that cannabis is a safe medicine that is less intoxicating, addictive and deadly than legal narcotic prescription painkillers. While passing positive cannabis legislation that will protect workers at the federal level is a rather daunting task, we have seen many positive developments lately and our momentum is picking up steam. As more states legalize cannabis, it is only a matter of time before we achieve true equality; it is unfortunate that too many good people have to unnecessarily suffer in the meantime.

Anthony Johnson

Anthony, a longtime cannabis law reform advocate, was Chief Petitioner and co-author of Measure 91, Oregon's cannabis legalization effort. He served as director of both the New Approach Oregon and Vote Yes on 91 PACs, the political action committees responsible for the state's legalization campaign. As director of New Approach Oregon, Anthony continues to work towards effectively implementing the cannabis legalization system while protecting small business owners and the rights of patients. He sits on the Oregon Marijuana Rules Advisory Committee and fights for sensible rules at the legislature as well as city councils and county commissions across the state. Anthony helps cannabis business comply with Oregon's laws and advises advocates across the country. He also serves as content director of both the International Cannabis Business Conference and the Oregon Marijuana Business Conference, helping share the vision of moving the cannabis industry forward in a way that maintains the focus on keeping people out of prison and protecting patients. He was a member of the Oregon Health Authority Rules Advisory Committee, assisting the drafting of the administrative rules governing Oregon’s state-licensed medical marijuana facilities. He first co-authored and helped pass successful marijuana law reform measures while a law student at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law. He passed the Oregon Bar in 2005 and practiced criminal defense for two years before transitioning to working full-time in the political advocacy realm. His blogs on Marijuana Politics are personal in nature and don't speak for or reflect the opinions of any group or organization.