If you’ve been out looking for a job anytime in the past few years, you know how common it has become for employers to require a drug screen test before hiring someone. That usually involves a trip to a local lab, where they have a person urinate in a cup and send it off for analysis. Sometimes, the Human Resources department may do a saliva test right there in the recruiting and testing process.
Why do employers do this? Some workers imagine that it has something to do with keeping everyone “legal”. Far from it. Most employers simply get insurance breaks for doing so, and some insurances even require it.
And sometimes testing is done to weed out any folks who might be in the habit of coming to work high. It scares them off and helps the employer avoid the hassle of firing and replacing them later.
But what about those states that have legalized medical marijuana? If a worker’s doctor has recommended that they use marijuana as a treatment, does marijuana now fall under the same protections as other prescription drugs?
Apparently it does not. Huffington Post recently ran a story on Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic who worked for Dish Network in Colorado. Coats had been in a car accident that left him with a spinal injury. He has debilitating muscle spasms. A wide array of prescription drugs had been tried, but nothing worked well. Finally his doctor recommended he try medical marijuana, which is legal in Colorado.
Coats was entered into the Colorado Medical Marijuana Registry, as required by law, and now smokes a small amount in the evening before bed. His symptoms have decreased remarkably, making it much easier for him to get up and work the following day.
Coats does not smoke during the day, and certainly not at work.
But Dish Network asked Coats to take a “random drug screen test”. He told them about his medical regimen and showed them doctor’s documentation. They administered the test, confirmed that he did have THC in his system, and fired him.
Coats had been with Dish for three years, had only ever been late twice — a considerable feat given that he is confined to a wheelchair — and was otherwise a model employee. But his appeals to cooler heads and reason at Dish fell on deaf ears. Dish responded to his appeal with scorn.
“We are surprised by your recent claim that you do not understand the basis for your termination at Dish Network. You tested positive for marijuana while at work. Following your positive drug test result, we met with you … and at each of these meetings you did not deny that you use marijuana or that you tested positive while at work. You further stated that you plan to continue to use marijuana. Consequently, your employment with Dish was terminated.”
Note the phrase “tested positive while at work”.
THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, can stay in the system for up to 40 days. “Testing positive” in no way indicates intoxication. It can have been a month since someone used marijuana and they may still “test positive while at work”. Dish has made no claim at all that Coats’ performance was affected, that he appeared intoxicated, or that anyone even knew about his use of medical marijuana.
When asked about Coats’ case, a Dish representative replied, “As a national company, Dish is committed to its drug-free workplace policy and compliance with federal law, which does not permit the use of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes,”
Their reply indicates that Dish does not understand the basics of medical marijuana use. Nor do they understand the concept of “compliance with federal law”. An employee’s off-the-clock use of medical marijuana — or, indeed, even of any substance, legal or illegal — has no bearing on that company’s “compliance with federal law”. The company is not responsible for its employees’ private practices, so long as they do not affect performance on the job.
Coats has sued Dish. His case is currently winding its way though the courts. The outcome could have a significant effect on laws throughout the country.
Image via Wikimedia Commons