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Colorado High Court Ruling Adds Clarity, Concerns

Dish Network won its case, but at what cost?

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For years now, a significant portion of our sociopolitical discussion has revolved around whether American corporations are anything other than soulless factories of greed that view their workers as necessary but dispensable annoyances. For some, this view is gospel, as plainly obvious as those mountains rising west of Denver. But on purely economic terms, most ardent supporters of capitalism would argue that this is what corporations are supposed to be.

If there was any doubt about this dynamic, the Colorado Supreme Court has put it to rest. On Monday, the court ruled 6–0 that Dish Network—Colorado’s second-largest public company—was justified in firing customer service employee Brandon Coats in 2010 for using medical marijuana during his off hours. The Englewood-based Dish, a national enterprise with about 19,000 employees, dismissed Coats for violating its “zero tolerance” policy against illicit drug use. Coats contested his firing on the grounds that since medical marijuana has been legalized in Colorado and he wasn’t high at work, he wasn’t doing anything wrong. Dish’s legal team countered that the federal ban on marijuana trumps state law and supports its corporate policy, and the court agreed.

The decision is important because it clarifies employers’ rights during this unprecedented time of social and legal change around our state and federal drug laws. It also underlines the need to resolve the disconnect between these regulations as soon as possible. Despite some recent positive momentum in Congress toward creating more coherent national drug policies, Washington DC is still lagging in this debate, largely because many politicians with national or potentially national profiles lack the temerity to address it. Those who have tend to want to undo all the progress the pro-legalization movement had made, which makes them so out of touch with the electorate’s preferences that they have basically no chance to land in that bigger spotlight they so crave.

(Read: Is federal marijuana policy inching closer to a resolution?)

Which brings us back to Dish. As illuminating as the Coats case was, it’s also troubling. Although anyone can understand why a company wouldn’t want its customer service reps to be high at work, Coats wasn’t. What’s more, he didn’t work as an installer or on a loading dock, where being high could actually be dangerous. Coats wasn’t performing any risky tasks for Dish because he’s a quadriplegic who uses medical marijuana to control leg spasms. As all medical marijuana patients know (including yours truly), using the drug to treat symptoms such as spasms, anxiety, or pain relief is preferable to the far more addictive and potentially harmful (but legal) pharmaceuticals that anyone can get.

Dish—which despite its size has long been an also-ran in the cable and satellite TV business—made the calculated decision that its corporate policies trumped the needs of a disabled employee with no other performance issues. Maybe Dish officials had internal discussions about making an exception for Coats or creating allowances for its employees with unusual medical conditions; maybe they didn’t.

It’s surely naive to hope that most for-profit corporations will ever concentrate on anything other than their bottom line, or give more than lip service to things like “work environment” or professional development. In the meantime, instilling an ounce or two of basic humanity or decency into how it deals with its personnel is all any employee of any company could ever ask. That doesn’t mean they’ll receive it.

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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