Marijuana: NORML coming up with drug-testing guidance to protect employees

Late last month, we reported that a potentially groundbreaking case involving medical marijuana patient Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic fired by DISH after a positive drug test, is headed to the Colorado Supreme Court. In the meantime, the Colorado branch of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) is developing drug-testing guidelines for employees, whether they're patients or recreational users -- and members on this mission are using a progressive policy in Boulder as a starting point. Details below.

As we've reported, Coats, who's in his thirties, is paralyzed over 80 percent of his body owing to a car crash at age sixteen; he was a passenger in the vehicle.

During recent years, Coats began using medical marijuana to address his myriad health challenges, and experienced impressive results.

But as an employee at DISH, Coats was subjected to a drug test, and despite his patient status and consistently positive job-performance evaluations, he was fired by the company in 2010. He subsequently brought suit against the firm, and although he has suffered a series of legal setbacks since then, the decision by the Colorado Supreme Court to consider his appeal keeps alive the chance for a positive outcome from his perspective.

Attorney Michael Evans and Brandon Coats at DISH.
Attorney Michael Evans and Brandon Coats at DISH.

Whatever happens, however, attorney Rachel Gillette, who serves as executive director of Colorado NORML and co-chair of the organization's Coalition for Drug Testing Policy Reform, knows that the eventual ruling won't answer every question when it comes to drug testing in Colorado. That's why her committee is moving ahead, rather than waiting for the justices to weigh in.

"Our goal is threefold," Gillette says. "First, we want to give employers some guidance as far as recommending a drug-testing policy they voluntarily adopt regarding how they should be treating employees using recreational and medical marijuana off the job. We think there's a lot of confusion about that.

"Our second goal is to draft a proposed local ordinance for local jurisdictions to possibly adopt that would give some guidance as to when drug testing is allowed," she continues. "And our third goal is to both educate the public and educate our state legislators, because we think drug testing effects our overall economy in Colorado.

"The bottom line is, your best employee could be a cannabis consumer, and drug testing doesn't show any evidence of impairment on the job. It's a sort of arbitrary test that may indicate that an employee has consumed marijuana off the job, legally, at some point over the past thirty to 45 days -- and we don't think an employee's job should be at risk for participating in legal activities off the job."

Continue for more of our interview with Colorado NORML's Rachel Gillette, followed by the Boulder drug-testing ordinance.  

Rachel Gillette.
Rachel Gillette.

When coming up with these recommendations, Gillette says the coalition will refer to the City of Boulder's drug-testing ordinance, on view below, which she sees as representing a possible path forward on the issue.

The ordinance "essentially says you can't drug test an individual after they've been hired unless you have reason to believe they were impaired at work," she notes, "and there must be objective facts and circumstances in each case."

The results have been good for Boulder employers and employees alike, Gillette maintains. "There really hasn't been a lot of trouble arising from it. Employees feel like they're protected, and employers know they can drug test in certain circumstances.

"This is an issue of privacy," she believes, "and an issue of a strong Colorado workforce, and a strong Colorado economy. If you take a rough estimate that about 15 percent of workers in Colorado may be cannabis consumers, then there's no reason we should be excluding 300,000 people from the job market, especially if they're legally consuming marijuana off the job.

"Marijuana shouldn't be a criterion for job fitness any more than alcohol use, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, gun ownership or any other freedom that Americans participate in and often take for granted," she stresses. "They have nothing to do with job fitness."

Colorado NORML hopes to complete its guidelines within the next few months. Look below to see the City of Boulder drug-testing ordinance.

City of Boulder Drug Testing in the Workplace Regulations

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Marijuana archive circa January 28: "DISH's firing of paralyzed medical marijuana patient heading to state supreme court."

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