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Colorado high court rules you can be fired for legally smoking pot off-duty (+video)

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Ed Andrieski/AP

(Read caption) In this April 25, 2013 photo, attorney Michael Evans, left, listens in his office in Denver as his client Brandon Coats talks about the Colorado Court of Appeals ruling that upheld Coats being fired from his job after testing positive for the use of medical marijuana.

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UPDATE: 12 p.m. Monday

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled on 6-0 Monday that employees like Brandon Coats can be fired for using marijuana while off-duty.

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The case could be pivotal in clarifying the relationship between state laws that support marijuana use, and federal laws that consider its use illegal. 

In the majority opinion, Justice Allison H. Eid wrote:

"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 statute."

Mr. Coats is a quadriplegic who has used medical marijuana at home to help control seizures since 2009. He was fired from his job as a Dish Network customer service representative in 2010 after a cheek swab drug test found inactive THC metabolites in his system. Coats says he never used marijuana while at work, but Dish Network's zero-tolerance policy against illegal drug use resulted in his termination nonetheless. 

Coats's attorneys argued that his use of marijuana as medicine was legal under Colorado state law, and that consuming it should therefore be treated like any other legal substance. They challenged his termination under the Colorado Lawful Off-Duty Activities Statute, which says that employees cannot be fired for doing things off the clock that are legal. 

Attorneys for Dish and the state said that despite its legal status in Colorado, marijuana cannot be considered "lawful" due to the fact that both medical and recreational marijuana use are still illegal under federal law. 

In 2013, the state's Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Dish, stating that "for an activity to be lawful in Colorado, it must be permitted by, and not contrary to, both state and federal law."

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Morgan Fox, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, told the Associated Press at the time that the Court of Appeals' decision was a setback. "It's unfortunate, considering how much support there is for medical marijuana, that employers don't see this like any other medication," Mr. Fox said.

The Colorado Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the case in September 2014. 

With medical marijuana legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, the conflict between federal and state laws only grows more confusing for cannabis users across the country. Sam Kamin, a law professor at the University of Denver and an expert on marijuana regulation, told The Christian Science Monitor that many users remain in the dark about whether they could potentially lose federal student loans, a federally subsidized apartment, or parole status for legally using marijuana. The situation is also proving problematic for marijuana businesses who are unable to use banks for business practices. 

"We're moving toward a place where most citizens live in a place where marijuana is legal for some purposes," Professor Kamin said. "They’ll be unclear what their rights are."

Some states, such as Arizona, have passed laws protecting employees from being punished for legal off-duty marijuana use. But similar cases in California, Montana, Oregon, and Washington have resulted in rulings against the fired employees.