DENVER, Colo. — The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill to decriminalize marijuana across the country, but as it sits in the Senate awaiting a vote, the legislation is bringing up deeper conversations about Americans’ rights to use marijuana.
The drug is legal, in some form, in 38 states. But even where it’s legal, some companies have fired their employees for using it.
There is now a push to allow some employees to use marijuana in their off time, but protecting both workplace safety and employees’ rights is a tough balance.
Brandon Coats lost his job for using medical marijuana in a state where it is legal.
Coats, a quadriplegic, used marijuana nightly to help ease muscle spasms. He was in a car accident at age 16.
"When I use marijuana, it calms it down, like a lot, very significantly,” said Coats.
Despite planning for a more labor-intensive job, he was able to find a job he enjoyed, working at a call center for nearly a decade.
“I never had a bad performance appraisal. I was in the top 5% of call times,” said Coats.
But, a random drug test at work pulled his life off track yet again.
“My supervisors, managers, they're like, yeah, he does a good job. They were on my side and everything. But I come in on a Monday, and I have a swipe thing that opens the door for me, and it didn't work,” said Coats.
Brandon was fired for failing the drug test. He sued his employer, and the case went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court. The court ruled against him.
“They came up to the conclusion that because it's unlawful federally, that it's unlawful and they're not going to support it, even though we legislated a law and passed it,” said Coats. “It doesn't make any sense to me.”
That case was eight years ago, but Coats hasn’t gotten a job since.
“Once they find that out, they don't want to hire me anymore. It's mostly anger and frustration. A lot of frustration. You know, uh, it's hard to get a job.”
That’s why he’s now helping community leaders and legislators change the laws in Colorado to protect employees using marijuana.
It’s a movement that’s slowly growing across the country.
“Our focus is on representing the responsible adult marijuana consumers, and this is arguably their number one issue,” said Paul Armentano, the deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
This year, states like Illinois and cities like St. Louis are debating laws to end employee drug screenings to get a job, and they would allow employees to use marijuana outside of work.
Colorado introduced a similar bill that also would’ve allowed medical marijuana patients to medicate on the job, but that’s now tabled for further study.
Only 21 states protect employees from losing their jobs for using medical marijuana. Five states protect recreational use.
“Those individuals who use cannabis off the job, are just as productive, they are just as likely to show up at work, they are just as likely to be absent from work as individuals who choose or elect not to use cannabis,” said Armentano.
Still, many employers say this is too big of a risk to take on. Loren Furman runs the Colorado Chamber of Commerce and said this would hurt multiple industries.
“Every company, from aerospace to mining companies, to utility companies, to healthcare companies, hospitals— any employer is always going to be concerned about any litigation among employees against they themselves. You know, that's why we've always recommended that there be zero-tolerance policies in place,” said Furman.
“All of us want a safe and productive workplace. I don't think anybody is on different sides of that particular issue. The question is, how do we accomplish that goal?” said Armentano.
Cannabis advocates agree and that could mean exempting certain jobs from the protections— such as hands-on jobs in transportation or health care.
“It is a choice just like using alcohol just like using other substances. And no one should be taken away from employment because of their choices,” said Shannon Donnelly, a professor of cannabis in the school of hospitality at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.
“There is nothing that prevents an employer from allowing this if they want to allow it on the job site, nothing is preventing that,” said Furman. For that reason, she believes legislation is not necessary and individual businesses can decide if they want to allow employees to use marijuana.
Some argue these protections could bring more people into the job market than ever before.
“By taking away things like adverse reactions for testing positive for marijuana, we might have people trying for much different jobs that they weren't trying for in the past,” said Donnelly.
For Coats, he is stuck waiting for that day to come.