Marijuana: Brandon Coats filing argues using MMJ is a lawful activity

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In April, we told you about the story of Brandon Coats, a paralyzed medical marijuana patient fired from DISH Network for failing a positive drug test.

Coats's complaint lost in the first round, but it's under appeal -- and with the filing of a new brief, the case is entering a new phase. See the brief below.

As we've previously reported, the original complaint was pressed in Araphaoe District Court by attorney Michael Evans on behalf of Coats, who's in his early thirties and is paralyzed over 80 percent of his body. At age sixteen, he was a passenger in a vehicle that crashed into a tree.

Since then, Coats has used a wheelchair to get around, but he's fully capable of working -- and in 2007, he was hired by DISH as a customer service representative. Over the years that followed, the suit contends that prescription medicine Coats took to treat involuntary muscle spasms began to fail. When searching for a way to deal with these symptoms, his physicians recommended that he supplement his regimen with medical marijuana. He received his state-issued license for MMJ in August 2009 and found that cannabis helped alleviate his spasms. However, the complaint stresses that he never used marijuana at work, during work hours or anywhere on the company's premises.

In May 2010, Coats was ordered to take a random drug test. He's said to have told the employee administering the test that he was an MMJ patient, but this wasn't taken into account when he registered a positive for THC. The agent who broke the news allegedly told him that his status as a patient didn't matter: "That is just Colorado state law and does not apply to your job." Two weeks later, Coats was fired for violating the company's drug policy.

Evans took DISH to court, arguing that Coats's activities were constitutionally protected. But in February, District Judge Elizabeth Beebe Volz granted DISH's motion to dismiss, and among the cases she cited to justify this ruling was one involving Jason Beinor, a medical marijuana patient sacked from his street sweeping job after failing a drug test.

As we've noted, the elements of the Coats and Beinor matters aren't identical; the latter dealt with an unemployment benefit claim, not his firing. Yet Volz described the circumstances as "substantially similar," and she noted that the Beinor finding came up in a Court of Appeals opinion in a subsequent matter, People v. Watkins; that dispute involved an MMJ patient on probation who was told he couldn't medicate without violating his parole. Watkins "interpreted the Medical Marijuana Amendment" -- Amendment 20 -- "as merely providing 'an exception from the state's criminal laws for any patient in lawful posession of a "registry identification card" to use marijuana for medical purposes,'" she wrote.

Continue reading about the Brandon Coats case and see the latest brief below. These interpretations "limit the effect of the amendment as an affirmative defense to criminal prosecution" but don't "make the use of medical marijuana a lawful activity, so as to preclude an employer from termination based on this conduct," Volz allowed. Hence, she found that "use of marijuana, even where such use is in full compliance with Colorado's Medical Marijuana Amendment, is not a lawful activity" and rejected Coats's complaint.

In the new brief, Evans calls the trial court's dismissal of Coats's complaint a "reversible error" because using medical marijuana when not at work to address his medical issues is indeed a "lawful activity."

"DISH asserted that Colorado's Lawful Activity statute does not protect marijuana use for any purpose because it remains illegal under the Federal Controlled Substances Act," the brief contends. However, "The trial court dismissed Mr. Coats' complaint under...other grounds...concluding that the use of marijuana, even when used in full compliance with Colorado's Medical Marijuana Amendment, is not a 'lawful activity' under Colorado's Lawful Activity Statute because the Amendment is limited exclusively to providing an affirmative defense to a criminal prosecution."

But "the trial court ignored the plain language of Colo. Const. article XVIII...(which expressly defines the use of marijuana within the parameters of the constitution as "lawful"), and misplaced its reliance on non-binding dicta from a narrow holding in Beinor...."

Put another way, Evans believes the lower court gave more credence to a single court case -- one decided by a one-vote margin -- that a constitutional amendment approved by a majority of Colorado voters.

The brief was filed on June 21. DISH has 35 days from then to file a response. Read the brief in its entirety here.

Brandon Coats Opening Brief

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More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana card not a license to smoke on probation, court rules."

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