Bill Would Allow MMJ Use on the Job, Protect Employee Marijuana Use Off-Hours

A bill that would protect the rights of Coloradans to consume cannabis off the job and also allow medical marijuana patients to use it at work has been proposed in the state legislature. Again.

Despite being the first state to allow recreational pot sales, Colorado still doesn't have protections in place for people who are denied jobs or fired for off-duty cannabis consumption or testing positive for THC. But if House Bill 1152 passes as currently written, recreational cannabis use off the clock would no longer be a fireable offense, and Colorado would become the first state to allow medical marijuana patients to consume at work.

Since voters legalized the plant in 2012, any attempts to protect off-hours consumption in Colorado have been defeated. The most recent bill that would have provided safeguards similar to those now proposed was rejected 0-10 in its first committee vote in 2020; in 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against medical marijuana patients' right to consume off-hours, let alone at work. But the Colorado chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws believes that things could go differently at the State Capitol this year.

"We've done a lot more stakeholding in reaching out to various chambers of commerce, and have eased the mind of many of the businesses that this bill wouldn't apply to," says Colorado NORML Executive Director Ashley Weber, whose organization has been pushing this new proposal since the 2020 rejection. "People with commercial driver's licenses or federal employees would not qualify, as far as this goes."

HB 1152, introduced by state representatives Edie Hooton and Brianna Titone, would exempt federal workers and people who work with heavy machinery or in dangerous fields. According to Weber, the proposal calls for following a 1990 state statute that outlines lawful off-duty activities for employees, such as alcohol and tobacco use. Workplaces could impose restrictions on medical marijuana use by employees if they're related to occupational requirements, or if the cannabis use creates a conflict of interest for the employer.

"Employers should treat those who need access to their medicine or need to consume legally in the workplace in a similar matter," Weber says, comparing the time spent taking medication to a cigarette break.

There were nearly 86,500 registered medical marijuana patients in Colorado as of December, according to the state Department of Public Health and Environment.

Nevada and New Jersey both have laws protecting an employee's right to consume legal cannabis off the job, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled that medical marijuana use off the clock isn't grounds for dismissal. Allowing medical marijuana use at work would be groundbreaking in the United States, however; Weber admits that that part of the bill could face opposition from lawmakers who would otherwise support the right to off-hour cannabis use.

House Minority Leader Chris Holbert has already expressed resistance to the idea of medical marijuana use on the job, and mining and electric supplier associations are officially opposing the proposal. Pinnacol Assurance, the state's largest provider of workers' compensation insurance, says it is "reviewing the bill" and talking to sponsors about its concerns, as well.

The Colorado Supreme Court dealt a blow to cannabis users in 2015, agreeing with DISH Network's 2012 dismissal of Brandon Coats, a paralyzed medical marijuana patient who tested positive for THC. The company didn't argue with Coats's claim that he was never under the influence at work, instead pointing to a Colorado law that says the term "lawful" refers only to activities that are legal under both state and federal law, and the state Supreme Court agreed.

Lawmakers who opposed allowing medical marijuana use on the job have cited Coats's case in the past, including when he testified in favor of the failed proposal in 2020. According to Weber, Coats will appear in front of the House Business Affairs & Labor Committee to testify for HB 1152.

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.