Colorado legislators reject request to protect jobs of legal consumers

Bethan Rose Jenkins, Cannabis News Writer/Editorial

Employees who consume cannabis in Colorado won’t be protected from using the plant off-the-clock. Based on a recent report, the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee voted 10-0 against a proposed bill to stop employers from firing members of their workforce if they return a positive drug test.

Colorado’s bill to protect cannabis-consuming employees HB 20-1089 fell flat after almost three hours of debate from committee members on both sides. One of the reasons for the bill’s demise came down to the fact that no testing apparatus currently exists to confirm whether or not an employee is under the influence of cannabis at any precise moment. 

“The concern about keeping a workplace safe and not having a reliable method for testing people’s impairment, the interest in maintaining a productive workplace, I think those are compelling,” said Rep. Shannon Bird, D-Westminster. Moreover, some lawmakers said the recommended changes were much too comprehensive.

“I do find some compelling arguments of people needing to use cannabis for medical reasons,” added Bird. “The bill, I think, is much broader than that, than trying to narrow in on that conversation about how we make sure that people don’t lose their jobs for taking something they need to make it through the day.”

Colorado’s bill to protect cannabis-consuming employees inspired by court case

Cannabis in Colorado was legalized for medical purposes in 2000, before a recreational market launched in 2012. However, since cannabis is still a Schedule I drug at the federal level, it is illegal for workers to use the plant. In spite of this, Colorado’s bill to protect cannabis-consuming employees strived to make off-duty consumption lawful. Unfortunately, employees can still fire patients for using medical cannabis; even if they’re disabled and rely on plant-based medicines.

HB 20-1089, which was sponsored by Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, came to light after a previous court case tugged on the heartstrings of advocates. That particular court case involved a medical cannabis patient named Brandon Coats, who was dismissed from his job at Dish Network after failing to pass a drug test; the psychoactive cannabis compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) was found in his blood.

Shortly after he was fired, Coats proceeded to sue his former employer for discrimination. His case wound up being dealt with in the Colorado Supreme Court; a judge ruled that his activities were unlawful.

Dismissal of Colorado’s bill to protect cannabis-consuming employees is disappointing

Numerous representatives on the committee nodded their heads in agreeance with Melton, who said that the issue of workplace drug testing must be clarified if Colorado is to truly regulate cannabis like alcohol. Even though testimony was received from numerous advocates and industry experts, the committee was stubborn to pass the bill.

“The legislature missed an amazing opportunity to protect workers and employers alike by sticking with an outdated view of cannabis and by abandoning the constitutional protections that are guaranteed by the Colorado Constitution,” said Kimberlie Ryan, who assumes the role of attorney at the Ryan Law Firm.

Ryan’s firm specializes in cases pertaining to employee discrimination law. When Colorado’s bill to protect cannabis-consuming employees was submitted, she testified in favor of passing. Unfortunately, her testimony wasn’t enough to sway the committee’s decision. Coats also testified at the committee hearing.

“I believe that if we had this [law] in place at the time, I wouldn’t have been fired,” he told the committee. 

One of the people who spoke against the bill was the Colorado Chamber of Commerce’s senior vice president of state and federal relations, Loren Furman. She affirmed that cannabis was not legalized with the intent of annihilating workplace drug policies.

“If there’s going to be a bill that comes back or any kind of change in consideration of this policy, we need to have an exhaustive task force process again or an earlier stakeholder process than what we saw this legislative session,” she said once the vote had taken place.

If the bill had passed, any “lawful” substance would have been permitted with the same protections that are currently in place for Colorado’s alcohol and tobacco users.