Updated 5:49 p.m. | President Barack Obama waded into the debate about marijuana legalization in the District of Columbia, as well as budget and legislative autonomy, with a few provisions tucked into the fiscal 2016 budget proposal released Monday.
The proposal expands the District’s ability to set its own budget and spend local funds, rolling back sections of Congress’ 2015 spending package that targeted social policies in D.C., particularly the city-wide initiative that would legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana.
In the 2015 spending bill enacted in December, a policy rider moved to block the initiative, which 70 percent of D.C. voters approved in November. The rider blocked federal and local funds from being used “to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or reduce penalties associated with the possession, use or distribution” of marijuana. District officials argue the initiative can still go forward, despite the rider, because the initiative was enacted before the spending package became law. But, they also acknowledge that the rider prevents the District from using local funds to enact any legislation to regulate the tax and sales of marijuana.
However, the corresponding section in Obama’s budget only blocks federal funds from being used to enact any such measures. So, under Obama’s provision, the District could theoretically use local funds to enact and carry out a marijuana tax and regulatory structure, which District officials originally wanted to coincide with legalization of possession and cultivation.
“The President’s proposed FY16 budget would limit that prohibition to federal funds only, allowing the District to use local funds to enact laws or regulations to decriminalize or legalize the possession or use of such substances,” D.C. Council budget director Jennifer Budoff wrote in an email Monday.
“It’s great to see the president taking this subtle but important action to clear the way for the District to sensibly regulate marijuana,” Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, said in a statement. “Now it remains to be seen whether leaders in Congress will stand with the majority of the American people or if they’ll do everything they can to protect failed prohibition policies.”
Though there are several scenarios that could determine the fate of the marijuana initiative itself in the coming weeks, the District’s marijuana policy will likely be part of the congressional appropriations debate over the next year. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., the policy rider’s pre-eminent champion, said he expects Congress will work to block legalization once again.
“Congress took action to stop enactment of legalization of marijuana in D.C,” Harris said in a statement to CQ Roll Call Monday. “I believe the House will continue to support this language during the appropriations process this year.”
In addition to marijuana legalization, Congress also sought to block the District from spending federal and local funds on abortions in the year-end spending package. But, Obama’s budget limits that restriction to federal funds, thus allowing local funds to be spent on abortions.
However, Obama’s proposal continues the ban on federal funds being used for the salaries or expenses of D.C’s elected officials who lobby for D.C.statehood, or shadow representatives, and for safe needle distribution.
Once again, the president’s administration voiced support of budget and legislative autonomy for the District of Columbia.
“Consistent with the principle of home rule, it is the Administration’s view that the District’s local autonomy should be enhanced and increased,” wrote the budget’s authors. “The Administration will work with Congress and the mayor to provide the District local budget and legislative autonomy, as proposed in the Budget.”
The president inserted language supporting budget autonomy in the FY 2013 budget and endorsed legislative autonomy in the FY 2015 budget. Though a local referendum granting the District budget autonomy is wrapped up in a legal battle, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., introduced the Budget Autonomy Act of 2015 in the House in late January.
“We are grateful that the President again has demonstrated his support for D.C. to spend its local funds as it chooses without politically motivated congressional interference Norton said in a statement on Monday.
Although the president’s provisions could come as good news for the District, Congress has the final say in the appropriations process. And, if past measures are any indication, the appropriations process will likely continue to be an avenue where federal lawmakers target D.C. social policies.