Cannabis in America

Obama’s Budget Could Help D.C. Implement Legalized Marijuana

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It’s that time of the year again: yesterday the Obama administration released a proposed budget for the next fiscal year. As always, it made waves, sparked plenty of political statements from both sides of the aisle, and will take a while to get sorted out. There are some interesting provisions included in this budget though–one of the most notable is that it may allow Washington D.C. to finally move forward with the recreational marijuana legalization initiative that was passed in November.

Obama’s support for Washington D.C.’s ability to legalize recreational marijuana is incredibly subtle. In fact, it’s so subtle that it pretty much hinges on one word included in the budget: federal.

How can one small word have such a large impact on the ability of a city with roughly 650,000 people to enact a law? Well, there’s a lot of background that needs to be considered. D.C. residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana in November, with a huge margin–roughly 65 percent–in favor. The way that D.C.’s ability to pass laws is set up is very complicated, and has changed numerous times, but at the end of the day, Congress usually has final say.

Many Republicans, as well as some others in Congress, were unhappy with the idea of the nation’s capitol legalizing marijuana, so when Congress made a funding bill, it included wording that pretty much blocked D.C. from moving forward with the initiative. It stated that no funds could be used to enact the legalized marijuana initiative in the District of Columbia. Republican House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz explained the logic behind the block, saying:

Looking at the Constitution, Washington, D.C. is different. They are not a state and we have a role to play and the Congress passed this. I respect the people who live here and most everything passes through without a problem. But the idea that this is going to be a haven for pot smoking, I can’t support that

But Obama’s budget deviated from that slightly with the use of that one word: “federal.” Obama’s budget states that no federal funds can be used to implement the law. The distinction there is it doesn’t preclude D.C. from using local funds to do so.

There’s obviously no guarantee that the changed language will end up having any effect on whether or not legalized recreational marijuana actually happens in Washington D.C. However, it does show Obama’s continued support for the autonomy of Washington residents. This last July, Obama became the first sitting president to endorse D.C. statehood, saying:

I think I’ve long believed that D.C. pays — folks in D.C. pay taxes like everybody else. They contribute to the overall well-being of the country like everybody else. They should be represented [in Congress] like everybody else. And it’s not as if Washington, D.C., is not big enough compared to other states. There has been a long movement to get D.C. statehood, and I’ve been for it for quite some time.

While there are a lot of debates over D.C. statehood, and the exact rights that should be afforded to the city, the fact that Obama supports the ability for the city to do as its residents please has been made pretty crystal clear. The insertion of the word “federal” in the budget as it relates to the legalization of marijuana in D.C., as small as it may seem, is just the most recent example.

There’s no way to make any sort of clear prediction what will happen with the D.C. effort to legalize recreational marijuana–there are just too many moving parts right now. If Obama’s budget remains as is, and prohibits federal but not local funds from being used, recreational marijuana could soon be a fixture in D.C. The ball is now in Congress’s court.

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



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