By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - The Colorado Supreme Court ruled on Monday that companies may fire their employees for off-the-job use of medical marijuana that is permitted under state law because cannabis remains outlawed by the federal government.
The 6-0 opinion, with one justice sitting out the case, affirmed two lower-court decisions siding against Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic fired in 2010 from his job as a customer service representative for Dish Network Corp after testing positive for marijuana.
The Colorado-based satellite television company said Coasts' use of pot, even if consumed at home while off-duty, violated its "zero tolerance" anti-drug policy.
Coats sued Dish in 2011 for wrongful termination, citing a state law protecting employees from being dismissed for engaging in lawful activities outside the workplace.
Coats said he consumes pot in accordance with state law and a state-issued medical marijuana card to treat painful muscle spasms he still suffers from a car accident that left him paralyzed and wheelchair-bound.
The case turned on the definition of a "lawful" activity protected under the state's employment discrimination statute.
An Arapahoe County District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding that Colorado's medical marijuana amendment created a defense to state criminal prosecution that does not extend to protection against employee dismissals.
A divided state appeals court agreed in 2013, ruling that an employee's off-the-job behavior is only protected from employee discipline if it complies with both state and federal law.
The state Supreme Court ruled along similar lines, holding that federal law classifying marijuana as an illegal narcotic trumps Colorado's medical marijuana statute when defining a "lawful" activity protected from employer sanctions.
"Therefore, employees who engage in an activity such as medical marijuana use, that is permitted by state law but unlawful under federal law, are not protected by the (state) statute," the Supreme Court said.
Colorado is one of 23 states, along with the District of Columbia, that allow the use of pot for medicinal purposes. Colorado voters also have legalized cannabis for adult recreational use, as have voters in Washington state, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C.
High courts in California, Montana and Washington have ruled against medical marijuana patients in similar cases.
Coats' attorney, Michael Evans, was not immediately available to comment.
Mason Tvert, spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, played down the decision as specific to Colorado, adding, "The culture is ahead of the law, and the law is bound to eventually catch up."
(Reporting by Keith Coffman, additional reporting by Suzannah Gonzales; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Trott and Bernadette Baum)