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Courts side with employers on zero-tolerance drug policies

Court backs business on zero-tolerance drug policies

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The smoke signals continue to show the same thing -- courts will side with employers when it comes to zero-tolerance drug policies.

The latest example is a Court of Appeals decision that backs a lower ruling giving an employer -- Dish Network-- the right to fire an employee for a positive drug test. That plaintiff, Brandon Coats, is a paraplegic who relies on medicinal marijuana for pain relief. The appellate judges ruled that the law doesn't protect a worker's use of marijuana -- even if it's off-duty -- because marijuana is still a federally banned substance.

As it stands right now, there's nothing preventing Colorado businesses from firing employees who test positive for marijuana despite its legal status in the state.

On the same day that the case made headlines, a UCCS student organization helped educate students and professionals with the Society for Human Resource Management on workplace marijuana issues. One speaker, Joan Rennekamp, is an HR consultant who said there have already been plenty of issues she's seen Colorado employers deal with.

"Sometimes employers don't realize the nuances of the use of cannabis by their employees," said Rennekamp.

Rennekamp has seen cases of employers dealing with positive drug tests for employees who used medicinal marijuana to treat multiple sclerosis, as a salve for backaches or in tea form to deal with migraines.

Rennekamp said a zero-tolerance drug policy ties the hands of companies that value employees who use marijuana for medicinal reasons or recreation.

"The worst situation, I think, for an organization is to have to react to a challenging situation -- someone who got a positive drug test and it's their best employee," said Rennekamp.

Marijuana activists said they aren't trying to change business policies but hope there is room for exceptions in the rules now that voters have approved marijuana use in Colorado.

"I think the companies are realizing that Amendment 64 was here yesterday, it is going to be here tomorrow and will be here in 10 years," said Mark Slaugh, a marijuana compliance consultant with iComply. "The question is, 'What will be best for that employer?'"

Slaugh said he's not surprised by the court ruling against Coats but hopes more companies are more tolerant moving forward.

Rennekamp suggests business leaders review their company drug policy, talk about their policy with employees and keep an open dialog. She adds that employees need to realize the liability risk from a company's perspective and understand why requiring some positions to adhere to a drug-free policy is important.

Slaugh agrees and hopes it will eliminate the need for drug testing policies.

"Office work, maybe fast food positions -- situations where they are paying a lot of money to drug test employees -- we have to ask if that is going to be the most sensible policy if we are regulating marijuana like alcohol in the future," said Slaugh.

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