Legal pot complicates drug-free work policies

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 7, 2012 at 4:33 pm •  Published: December 7, 2012
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DENVER (AP) — Pot may be legal, but workers may want to check with their boss first before they grab the pipe or joint during off hours.

Businesses in Washington state, where the drug is legal, and Colorado, where it will be by January, are trying to figure out how to deal with employees who use it on their own time and then fail a drug test.

It is another uncertainty that has come with pot legalization as many ask how the laws will affect them.

"There's just an incredible amount of gray right now" about how marijuana legalization affects employers, said Sandra Hagen Solin of the Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance, a coalition of chambers of commerce.

Police departments are especially worried. Officers take oaths to protect all laws, state and federal. In this case, pot is still prohibited under federal law.

The Seattle police department is reviewing its policies on drug use by officers or prospective officers, spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said, adding that it's unlikely off-duty officers will be allowed to use pot. The department might ease its requirement that applicants not have used marijuana in the previous three years.

The Denver police department is reviewing Colorado's marijuana law, which goes into effect in January. The department has no immediate plans to change employment practices, spokesman John White said.

"Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, so officers would not under any scenario be allowed to use marijuana," White said. White wasn't sure about pre-employment marijuana use.

Other employers, especially those with federal contracts, are concerned what the new laws mean for them. One group of Colorado businesses has pleaded for clarity in a letter to the White House, which hasn't said if it would sue to block the law.

"The uncertainly created will cause havoc for our members and hamper their efforts to maintain drug-free worksites," wrote Mark Latimer, head of the Rocky Mountain chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.

The havoc Latimer refers to is confusion over a law passed with cigarette smokers in mind. Colorado's Lawful Off-Duty Activities law says workers can't be dismissed for legal behavior off the clock. A case pending in a state appeals court could settle the question.

The case involves Brandon Coats, a telephone operator for Dish Network. Paralyzed in a teenage car crash, he's also been a medical marijuana patient in Colorado since 2009. Coats was fired in 2010 for failing a company drug test, though his employer didn't claim he was ever impaired on the job.

Coats sued to get his job back, but a trial court dismissed his claim in 2011. The judge agreed with Dish Network that medical marijuana use isn't a "lawful activity" covered by the law. Coats appealed, and the state Court of Appeals has agreed to hear the case but hasn't set a date.