Since it became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, Colorado has been portrayed as the regulatory model for policy makers in other states who are interested creating a legal marketplace for cannabis users. Ostensibly this is because Colorado, unlike California (the first state to legalize medical marijuana), has a tightly controlled “seed to stem” program that was first implemented under their medical system and has since been adapted for recreational users. Since 2012 the program has provided the state with heaps of tax money while doing an adequate job at assuring scared white people that the sky won’t fall with legal weed, so it should be surprising that “the Colorado model” has become a slogan for those wishing to extend legalization elsewhere.
However in giving Colorado this prestige position, proponents are inherently accepting a very conservative ideological basis for how prohibition should end. This conservative approach might be part of the reason that cannabis legalization is becoming a reality in red states, but it also belies why idiotic rulings like the one from the Colorado Supreme Court will continue unless proponents step up.
The case featured a wheelchair-bound plaintiff, Brandon Coats, who used cannabis in compliance with Colorado’s long established medical marijuana program. He was fired from his customer service job with the Dish Network after failing a random drug test. According to Coats, he medicated outside of work hours, and nothing suggests that his work suffered as a result of his preferred method of treating debilitating muscle spasms. But because pot remains incredibly illegal under federal law, the court was able to conclude that employers can still discriminate against patients like Mr. Coats, effectively creating a cannabis loophole to the ADA.
As the Los Angeles Times noted, very few of the states that have allow legal access to cannabis have provided adequate legal protections for users in their workplace. This is because marijuana proponents continue to (understandably) rely on ballot initiatives as the preferred method to advance the legalization agenda. And while direct democracy avoids having to make the sort of noxious political horse-trading that has doomed medical marijuana programs in New York, they also prevent advocates from campaigning on more difficult issues like employment rights.
As long as the federal ban exists, prohibitionist-minded judges will use preemption to justify inexcusably awful behavior by both private and state actors against vulnerable people like Mr. Coats. Proponents therefore have a responsibility, not just to do the obvious work of pursuing necessary “mop up” legislation that would have prevented the discrimination and abuse exhibited by Dish Network in this case, but in how they portray “successes” like Colorado.
Simply telling people like Mr. Coats “well, at least you aren’t in prison” is unacceptable in 2015. This is an industry where people are making millions of dollars, in many cases directly from the pockets of truly sick and debilitated people (remember: pot is paid for out of pocket and not by insurance no matter how sick you are). The industry, especially in Colorado, has done a fine job providing both a wide array of products for consumers and a sizable bankroll for future political action, which is great, but it is simply unconscionable to force patients to choose between their health and their livelihood.
The recent success of cannabis in rapidly developing from an illicit substance into a legal and respected commodity is truly something to celebrate. However with the profits and political heft comes a moral duty to protect vulnerable users from illegitimate actions by bad actors in the public or private sectors. Simply put, if we sell individuals like Mr Coats on the benefits of cannabis and then leave him without the means to support himself, we are just as bad as the prohibitionists.