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Why you can no longer be fired for working on drugs in Colombia

Constitutional Court rules being under the influence only punishable if performance affected

Colombia’s Constitutional Court has tweaked labor legislation that placed a blanket ban on working under the influence of narcotics or stimulants, arguing that workers should only be punished for consumption of such substances “if it has a direct effect on workplace performance.”

Every glass of wine represents a unit of alcohol. AP

The controversial ruling in a country where cocaine production and consumption has soared in recent years, comes after two law students from Bucaramanga Uniciencia University challenged the prohibition on the grounds it conflicted with two articles of the country’s Constitution.

One of those articles guarantees the equality of all people before the law and provides state protection for “those people who, because of their economic, physical or mental condition, find themselves in demonstrably weakened circumstances,” a group that would include addicts, while another establishes equality of opportunity for all workers.

You can’t punish people for who they are or for what state they are in, only for what they do

Juan Manuel Charry, constitutional expert

The Constitutional Court ruled in the students’ favor. However, the new revisions of the labor law contain exemptions for “activities that entail risk for workers, their workmates or third parties,” with people working in the aeronautical industry being cited as an example.

The court also notes that employers can ban their workers from working while under the influence of alcohol or drugs if it is in their “legitimate interest that workers carry out their work duties in an adequate manner.”

But in making its ruling the court said that “disciplinary measures cannot be taken if the employer is unable to demonstrate the negative impact that the consumption of psychoactive substances has on the obligations of employees.”

Some experts believe the new law sets a dangerous precedent for employees

The ruling has divided experts and politicians in Colombia. Juan Manuel Charry, a constitutional specialist, defended the change in a conversation with EL PAÍS. “The fact of being under the influence of a substance cannot be punished if there is no damage or negligence,” he says, using the example of an employee who has had two glasses of wine at lunchtime.

“You can’t punish people for who they are or for what state they are in, only for what they do,” he says.

But for Augusto Pérez, who heads the Corporación Nuevos Rumbos center, which focuses on drug addiction, says the court’s sentence “has negative consequences for society,” adding it is “dangerous for employees” as it sets a doubtful precedent and gives them “carte blanche to do what they want.”

English version by George Mills.

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