July 18, 2019

Enforcing Drug-Free Workplace Policies In Light of Colorado’s Legalization of Marijuana Use

Johnson_JeffBy Jeffrey T. Johnson

Does an employer’s drug-free workplace policy trump an employee’s use of medical marijuana to treat disabling medical conditions? Yes, according to a recent decision by a Colorado federal judge. In Curry v. MillerCoors, Inc., Judge John Kane rejected a terminated employee’s claim that his employer discriminated against him on the basis of his disability when it discharged him for testing positive for marijuana. Curry v. MillerCoors, Inc., No. 12-cv-02471 (D. Colo. Aug. 21, 2013).

Discharging Employee for Positive Drug Test Not Disability Discrimination

Paul Curry asserted that he suffered from hepatitis C, osteoarthritis and pain. He obtained a medical marijuana license from the State of Colorado to manage the symptoms of his disabling medical conditions. He claimed that he never used marijuana on his employer’s premises and was never under the influence of marijuana at work. He sued after his employer fired him for testing positive for marijuana in violation of the company’s written drug policy. He alleged, among other things, that his termination constituted disability discrimination under C.R.S. § 24-34-402(1)(a).

Despite Curry’s claim that he used marijuana legally to treat his medical conditions, the court found that it was lawful for the company to terminate him under its drug-free workplace policy. Judge Kane wrote “. . . a positive test for marijuana, whether from medical or any other use, is a legitimate basis for discharge under Colorado law.” Moreover, he stated that “anti-discrimination law does not extend so far as to shield a disabled employee from the implementation of his employer’s standard policies against employee misconduct.” The court concluded that MillerCoors’s enforcement of its drug-free workplace policy was a lawful basis for its decision to fire Curry.

No Violation of Colorado’s Lawful Activities Statute

Curry also asserted that his termination violated Colorado’s lawful activities statute, C.R.S. § 24-34-402.5(1). The statute prohibits employers from terminating an employee due to the employee engaging in a lawful activity off-duty and off the employer’s premises. The court found no violation, relying on the recent Colorado Court of Appeals decision in Coats v. Dish Network LLC, which held that because marijuana use remains illegal under federal law, an employee’s use of medical marijuana is not a “lawful activity” under the state lawful activities statute. In the Curry case, the court concluded that under established Colorado law, discharging an employee who tests positive for marijuana in violation of an employer’s drug-free workplace policy is lawful, “regardless of whether the employee consumed marijuana on a medical recommendation, at home or off work.”

Medical vs. Recreational Marijuana Use – Does it Matter?

The Curry and Coats decisions both addressed the termination of an employee who used marijuana for medical purposes within the limits of a state-issued medical marijuana license. With the passage of Amendment 64 last November legalizing the adult use and possession of small amounts of marijuana, the next question is whether an employee’s use of marijuana for recreational purposes will be treated similarly by the courts. Based on the broad, sweeping language used by the Colorado Court of Appeals in Coats and the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado in Curry, the answer is yes. Both courts expansively upheld employer terminations of employees who tested positive for marijuana in violation of company drug policies, suggesting that their reasoning is not limited to the use of medical marijuana. It may take some time for a recreational marijuana termination case to reach the courts so we may not know definitively for a few years. In addition, either or both of these cases may be reversed on appeal. Absent that, however, all indications point to the same result for an employee discharge due to any positive drug test, regardless of whether the employee used marijuana for medical or recreational purposes.

Employers Should Strengthen, Communicate and Enforce Their Drug-Free Workplace Policies

Employers should review their drug testing and/or drug-free workplace policies to ensure that the policies apply to all controlled substances, whether illegal under state or federal law. Policies should clearly indicate that a positive drug test may result in termination of employment, regardless of whether the employee appears to be “under the influence” at work.  Employers then should communicate their drug-free workplace policies to their employees and enforce the policies in a consistent and uniform manner. Under these recent court decisions, terminating an employee who violates a written company drug-free policy will be lawful, even when the employee used marijuana legally under Colorado law.

Learn more about how new laws and rulings in Colorado and elsewhere will affect businesses large and small. From marijuana and social media to credit reports and arbitration agreements, employers need to adapt their policies to stay compliant and minimize liability. Experienced labor and employment lawyers Jeffrey T. Johnson, Esq., of Holland & Hart LLP and Todd J. McNamara, Esq., of McNamara Roseman & Kazmierski LLC will present “Advising Your Business Client on Employment Law – Recent Developments,” at CBA-CLE’s Business Law Institute on October 16, 2013. To register for the Business Law Institute, click here or call (303) 860-0608.

With more than three decades of experience, Jeffrey T. Johnson counsels employers on virtually every area of labor and employment law, including employment discrimination, wrongful discharge, wage and hour, WARN, employee policies, discipline, National Labor Relations Act matters, non-compete and non-disclosure agreements and employee safety and health.  When litigation arises, he serves as a battle-tested, effective advocate for his clients in federal and state courts and agencies as well as in arbitration.  Mr. Johnson is a Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers and is recognized as a top labor and employment lawyer by Chambers USA, Best Lawyers in America, Colorado Super Lawyers, and Who’s Who Legal USA. He is also an arbitrator for the American Arbitration Association, Employment Law Panel (Denver).

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.

Spark the Discussion: Top Five Myths About the Drug-Free Workplace Act

Kimberlie Ryan Head ShotSpark the Discussion” is a monthly Legal Connection column highlighting the hottest trends in the emerging field of marijuana law. This column is brought to you by Vicente Sederberg, LLC, the country’s first national medical marijuana law firm.

By Kimberlie Ryan, Esq.

Headlines screamed across the country when Colorado became the first state to recognize the Constitutional right to use marijuana for any reason by adults ages 21 and older.

One headline reported a CEO’s panic that “legal pot will make it hard to hire, devastate the economy.”  This CEO claimed that “if you sell to the federal government or state government, you are required to certify that you have a drug-free workplace,” so “if you smoke pot, I still can’t hire you.”

These statements confirm a fundamental misunderstanding of the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 (DFWA), and such proclamations perpetuate unfounded myths about this law.

Myths like these could deprive unwitting employers of excellent employees – and might give rise to legal claims against companies that violate workers’ rights.  Due to space constraints this article is limited to a discussion of the DFWA, so let’s get to it and set the record straight.

Before we get to the myths and the realities, a brief background on the DFWA is in order.  President Reagan signed the Drug-Free Workplace Act nearly 25 years ago in 1988.  The Act defines a “drug-free workplace” as a site for the performance of work done by a federal contractor or grantee in connection with a specific federal contract or grant at which employees are prohibited from engaging in the unlawful manufacture, distribution, dispensing, possession or use of any controlled substance.  At this time “controlled substance” still includes marijuana.  But that is not the end of the analysis.

By definition, the DFWA limits the “workplace” to the work site for certain “covered” employers and by its terms does not include any other location where work for the contract is not performed. It does not allow employers to prohibit the use of marijuana completely, and it does not apply to all employers or employees.  Now to the myths.

1. Myth #1 – The DFWA applies to all private employers.

Reality:  The DFWA only applies to certain federal contractors and grant recipients.  A company is subject to the Act only if the value of a single contract is more than $100,000, or if it has any federal grant.  Individuals with grants or contracts from any U.S. Federal agency are covered by the Act, regardless of dollar volume.  Last year, only 21.7% of federal contracting dollars went to small businesses.  Unless employers meet the specific requirements for coverage, the DFWA does not apply to them.  The Act does not apply to those that do not have contracts or grants from the federal government, and it does not apply to employees who are not directly engaged in the performance of the covered contract or grant.

2. Myth #2 – The DFWA requires employers to drug test employees. 

Reality: The DFWA does not require or authorize drug testing.  In fact, the legislative history of the Act indicates that Congress did not intend to impose any additional requirements beyond those set forth in the Act, which are very limited as discussed below. Specifically, the legislative history precludes the imposition of drug testing of employees as part of the implementation of the Act.

3.  Myth #3 – The DFWA requires employers to fire employees who use marijuana at home as authorized by Colorado Constitutional Amendments 20 and 64.

Nothing in the DFWA requires employers to fire workers for exercising their Constitutional rights to use marijuana while off-duty and outside the workplace.  The law requires only that in case of a conviction for a criminal drug offense resulting from a violation occurring in the workplace, the employer may take one of two types of action. The employer may take disciplinary action, which may be a less severe penalty than termination, or may refer the employee for rehabilitation or drug abuse assistance program. The choice of which basic course to choose, as well as the specific discipline or treatment option, is left to the employer’s discretion and may be made on a case-by-case basis, provided all state and local laws are followed.  “Conviction” is defined by the Act as limited to afinding of guilt, including a plea of no contest, or imposition of sentence, or both, by any judicial body charged with the responsibility to determine violations of the Federal or state criminal drug statutes.

4. Myth #4 – The DFWA requires employers to report positive drug tests to the federal government.

The Act does not require employers to report positive drug tests to the federal government.  The only reporting requirement is triggered solely if an employee is convicted of a drug offense occurring at the workplace.

5.  Myth #5 – The DFWA preempts state and local laws.

The requirements of the Act “coexist with state and local law,” according to the United States Department of Labor.  Colorado does not have any state statute governing drug testing in employment, and adults have a Constitutional right to use marijuana in Colorado.  The City of Boulder Ordinance 5195 prohibits employee drug testing except in clear cases of probable cause, and where a written policy has already been provided to the work force.  In general, Colorado employers should update their drug testing policies to account for the Constitutional right, or expect legal challenges.

6.  Bonus Myth #6 – Employers who recognize Colorado’s Constitutional right of employees to use marijuana at home while off duty will automatically lose federal contracts.

Nothing in the DFWA governs the use of marijuana outside of the covered workplace for companies.  A company that is covered by the DFWA will be subject to penalties only if: 1) it fails to implement the six steps required to establish a drug-free workplace; or 2) the head of the agency determines that the company employs a sufficient number of individuals convicted of a criminal drug offense occurring in the workplace to indicate that the contractor has failed to make a good faith effort to provide a drug-free workplace.  Even then, the head of the agency may waive any possible penalties in certain circumstances, and violations may not result in contract termination or loss of payments.

What does the DFWA actually require?  Only 6 steps. Covered employers must:

  1. Publish and give a policy statement to all covered employees informing them that the unlawful manufacture, distribution, dispensation, possession or use of a controlled substance is prohibited in the covered workplace and specifying the actions that will be taken against employees who violate the policy.
  2. Establish a drug-free awareness program to make employees aware of a) the dangers of drug abuse in the workplace; b) the policy of maintaining a drug-free workplace; c) any available drug counseling, rehabilitation, and employee assistance programs; and d) the penalties that may be imposed upon employees for drug abuse violations.
  3. Notify employees that as a condition of employment on a Federal contract or grant, the covered employee must a) abide by the terms of the policy statement; and b) notify the employer within five calendar days if he or she is convicted of a criminal drug violation in the workplace.
  4. Notify the contracting or granting agency within 10 days after receiving notice that a covered employee has been convicted of a criminal drug violation in the workplace.
  5. Impose a penalty on – or require satisfactory participation in a drug abuse assistance or rehabilitation program by—any employee who is convicted of a reportable workplace drug conviction.  The “penalty” is up the discretion of the employer, and it may consist of a disciplinary warning – termination of employment is not uniformly mandated to comply with the DFWA.  Employers should evaluate penalties on a case-by-case basis and seek legal counsel to avoid violating state law or the Americans with Disabilities Act in imposing any discipline.
  6. Make an ongoing, good faith effort to maintain a drug-free workplace by meeting the requirements of the Act.

Employers have wasted millions of dollars on ineffective, invasive, and unnecessary drug testing that is not required by the DFWA.  Drug tests cannot show impairment, if any, or even when marijuana use occurred. Many employers have relied on information provided by drug testing promoters who have an inherent conflict of interest on the topic.  It has long been recognized that widely cited cost estimates of the effects of drug use on U.S. productivity are based on questionable assumptions and weak measures, according to a report of the National Academy of Sciences.  It is a challenge to locate a single case that has imposed liability on a private employer for opting out of drug testing, and despite beliefs to the contrary, the preventative effects of drug testing programs have never been adequately demonstrated.

The use of marijuana is a Constitutional right in Colorado.  Companies should join employers who are embracing a more sensible approach to drug policies today and seek to understand what the Drug-Free Workplace Act really does – and does not – require.  Only then can they release the unfounded myths of yesterday and work with their employees for a more productive tomorrow.

Kimberlie Ryan is the founding member of Ryan Law Firm, LLC, where she practices all aspects of employment law and has represented workers and advised employers regarding medical marijuana and the workplace.  In addition to her law practice, she serves as a television legal analyst and is frequently called upon to write and speak about cutting-edge employment issues.  This article is for educational purposes only, and it should not be construed as legal advice for a particular situation.  Consult with competent legal counsel for specific questions.

The opinions and views expressed by Featured Bloggers on CBA-CLE Legal Connection do not necessarily represent the opinions and views of the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, or CBA-CLE, and should not be construed as such.