Can you be fired for doing a legal act outside of the workplace?
Can an employee be fired for doing a legal activity outside of work hours? One would hope the beer and alcohol industry would strongly support a person’s right to legal activities outside of the workplace… without workplace retribution.
If not what happens when employers, with the goal of keeping health care costs down and looking out for the health of their workers, demand workers not drink alcohol… period? Sure testing might be an issue but the point is a larger one… if I as your employer discovers you are drinking in the evenings or on the weekend, can I fire you? I would hope most in this industry would respond with a resounding, NO!
Welcome to the wonderful world of legal marijuana. A world where for now, laws at various levels of government simply aren’t in sync with each other.
First a summary of the lay of the land…
At the federal level, marijuana is still categorized as a Schedule 1 drug, defined as…
Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence. Some examples of Schedule I drugs are:
heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote
We can talk about that stupidity later, but that is the position of the federal government. Oh but wait, is it? The Department of Justice (DOJ), the highest law enforcement office of the land, has another take. They have basically said they’ll step back and let the states handle this. They laid out their 8 priorities in a memo… basically if these 8 things aren’t violated, the DOJ will take no action and they recommend attorneys general follow this same guidance.
According to the guidance, DOJ will still prosecute individuals or entities to prevent:
- The distribution of marijuana to minors
- Revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels
- The diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states
- State-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity
- Violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana
- Drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use
- Growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands
- Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property
That last one is really a laugh… All of the Colorado ski resorts operate with leases on federal property. If you’ve ridden many chair lifts or skied upon some “smoke shacks”, you know what I’m talking about. But back to our larger point…
But Colorado and Washington both have legal adult consumption. Oregon and Alaska are voting on the same in less than a month. In Oregon, that travel guru Rick Steves is even traveling the state trying to ensure the passage (he did the same 2 years ago in Washington). He sits on the board of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and is consumer of, and strong supporter of legal weed.
23 states and DC already have some form of legal marijuana. Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, and Nevada are all on track for 2016 efforts for full legalization.
Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have pending legislation and/or ballot measures. By the time the next administration takes office, more than half of the states will have some variety of legal marijuana and 5 to 7 states (perhaps more) will have full legal adult consumption.
Which circles us back to the point of this post… can an employer fire an employee for legal activity during non-work hours?
The Colorado Supreme Court recently heard an argument on this very subject. A brief synopsis follows (you can find the original here):
Brandon Coats was partially paralyzed in a car crash as a teenager, using a wheelchair, and has been a medical marijuana patient since 2010 when he discovered that using pot helped calm violent seizures and muscle spasms. Coats was a telephone call-center operator with Dish Network for three years before he failed a cheek-swab random drug test in 2010 and was fired. Dish Network has a zero-tolerance policy against using illegal drugs.
On Tuesday, the Colorado Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Brandon Coats’ case that may have major impact on marijuana and the workplace. Colorado voters first approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the use of medical marijuana in 2000. Marijuana for recreational use was approved by voters in 2012 and started being sold in retail shops in Colorado on April 1, 2014.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia now have medical marijuana laws. Washington and Colorado laws specifically state that employers do not have to accommodate employees’ marijuana use. But other states such as Arizona, Nevada, New York, Minnesota, and Delaware grant various levels of protections to medical marijuana card holders from discrimination.
Additionally, the Supreme Courts for the states of California, Washington, and Montana have all ruled that an employer has no duty to accommodate the use of an “illegal drug” such as marijuana. The fact that marijuana remains a schedule one “illegal drug” under federal law has been critical in each ruling for the employer.
Coats brought his lawsuit against Dish under Colorado’s lawful off-duty activities law, which specifically says employers cannot fire people for doing something legal on their own time. Originally the law was enacted to protect cigarette smokers and multiple states have similar laws. Both the trial judge and Colorado Court of Appeals have already ruled against Coats “legal use” argument holding that as long as marijuana is illegal under federal law the state law does not apply.
During the Tuesday Colorado Supreme Court hearing the justices did little to telegraph how they may vote. A ruling may be months away.
I think the betting money is on the “get-out-of-jail-free” card based on the fact that weed is still an “illegal drug”, per the Feds. Thus you will still be able to fire folks for consuming marijuana even if the activity was legal, at least for a while.
But what happens once this situation changes? And the betting money is on it changing at the federal level. As it stands now, the governors of both Colorado and Washington could be arrested and easily convicted for violating various federal laws… as could every government employee who works in marijuana enforcement. The accountant for the mob still goes to jail too ;-) and from the federal law perspective, these folks are all part of a criminal conspiracy involving illegal drugs and money laundering.
And of course the thousands (10,000 or so in Colorado alone) of folks who work in the marijuana industry… in addition to all of the consumers. Those 23 states and DC with some version of legal weed? Anyone associated with it (starting with the governors), whether through regulation, employment, or consumption… all could be arrested and easily convicted.
Is that going to happen or are the Feds going to start changing in an effort to get these laws in sync with one another? That I believe is a no-brainer but it probably won’t happen until the next administration. I don’t expect this to occur via a federal-level “let’s legalize it” effort but rather through a “let the states decide” movement… and anything that furthers the efforts of state’s rights can’t be all wrong ;-)
Of course the Colorado Supreme Court could surprise everybody and rule for Mr. Coats. If that happens, employment law is going to be turned on its head for quite some time. But this tide is already well past turning.
The FBI has a policy of no-marijuana use for the past 3 years for new applicants (even this is an admission of the prevalence of marijuana consumption in the US), but in just the past couple weeks FBI Director Comey said apply… even if you’re lighting up on the drive to the job interview! You see the FBI needs talented, tech folks… white collar hackers… and the reality is a lot of these folks consume weed.
“I have to hire a great work force to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” Comey said. The FBI could possibly amend those strict rules soon. Comey told the conference the bureau is “grappling with the question right now” of how to change the drug policy without scaring off the cream of the hacking crop.
I’ve talked to many folks in many industries and a lot are taking the same path… loosening the strict zero tolerance rules for the simple fact they can’t staff their businesses without it. Craft brewers would die on the vine if they attempted to enforce a no-use policy! And their drinkers would abandon them in droves in protest. That’s just the reality on the street.
So… should an employer be able to fire a worker for legal activity outside of the work place? I think the beverage alcohol industry should think long and hard about this one… a poor choice might come back and bite real hard. You don’t have to be “pro-pot” (but I think anti-prohibition is a very righteous position)… just pro-individual rights. Or at least that’s my take on it. Let me know yours.