Why Pot Smokers Should Celebrate President Obama's Budget

February 3rd 2015

Alex Mierjeski

On Monday, President Barack Obama released a massive $4 trillion budget, which included big hitters like tax breaks for the middle class, higher taxes on the rich, paid leave, free community college, as well as requisite earmarks for things like defense, science, and technology.

But a subtle language play in the budget that you may not have noticed could mean big changes for residents of Washington, D.C. mired in a legal weed limbo.

Back in December, we told you about the convoluted process the District of Columbia was going through trying to implement its landmark referendum legalizing recreational marijuana. Essentially, because voters living in the Capitol are in the unique position of being ruled by Congress yet lacking representation there, the original referendum that passed with a landslide 70 percent of the vote in November was blocked by a rider to Congress’ budget bill.

The amendment prohibits federal and local funds from being used to “enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule 1 substance.” We also reported that the man behind the amendment, Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, who has been called an extremist on harsh marijuana policy, is conveniently backed by major Maryland biopharmaceutical company Emergent BioSolutions. The company’s Epsil product treats common side effects of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, the deleterious effects of which marijuana is regularly prescribed against. 

But D.C. voters and politicians, asserting their sovereignty, pushed back. Eleanor Homes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting Congressional delegate, pointed out that the initiative “did not require enactment or any rules for its implementation…therefore, it can be argued that the legalization of small amounts of marijuana can proceed.”

Since then, district politicians have continued with the push forward. Last month, Councilman David Grosso introduced legislation that would tax and regulate the sale of marijuana like alcohol. Four other D.C. Councilmen co-sponsored the bill. “This is a golden opportunity to do direct civil disobedience,” Grosso told U.S. News. “[I]f Congress is saying, ‘No, you can’t do it,’ and we do it, it challenges them to do what they think they have to do, unlike going out in the street and blocking traffic, where it’s an indirect message to the cause you’re trying to move forward.”

But the latest development in this bizarre saga came Monday in the form of two-word change buried on page 1,248 of the President’s budget. As noted by Marijuana Majority chairman Tom Angell, the “White House budget’s language is nearly identical to what Congress enacted in December, except by adding the word “Federal” is makes it clear that D.C. can spend its own local funds as it sees fit[.]” 

But it’s not as easy as a simple word switch: Obama’s bill still must go through a Republican-controlled Congress, where it faces likely opposition from people like Harris, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and could easily re-amend the bill. 

Obama’s nod to states’ sovereignty on the issue of marijuana is nonetheless a significant marker of the White House’s stance moving into 2015 and beyond. “We do not believe that Congress should spend a lot of time interfering with the ability of the citizens of the District of Columbia to make decisions related to how they should govern their community,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in December.

And given that Congressional Republicans haven’t necessarily demonstrated a concerted advance against legalized pot in their first few weeks, favoring instead a certain pipeline, for example, it’s possible that D.C. could be the first East Coast outpost of legalized marijuana as early as the end of the year.