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Obama Backs D.C. In Fight With Congress Over Marijuana Decriminalization

Later this week, a D.C. law decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana is set to go into effect.
Later this week, a D.C. law decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana is set to go into effect.

President Barack Obama has sided with D.C. officials in a fight with Congress over a bill that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana in the nation's capital.

In a Statement of Administration Policy on an appropriations bill that includes funding for D.C., the Obama administration said that it backs the city's right to write its own laws. The statement, which also included criticism of a measure that would stop D.C. from using local funds on abortions, is below:

The Administration strongly opposes language in the bill that restricts D.C. from using its local funds for abortion services, undermining the principle of States' rights and of District home rule. Longstanding Federal policy already prohibits Federal funds from being used for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest, or when the life of the woman would be endangered. Similarly, the Administration strongly opposes the language in the bill preventing the District from using its own local funds to carry out locally-passed marijuana policies, which again undermines the principles of States' rights and of District home rule. Furthermore, the language poses legal challenges to the Metropolitan Police Department's enforcement of all marijuana laws currently in force in the District.

The law reducing the penalty for possession for less than ounce of marijuana to a $25 ticket is set to go into effect this week, but last month Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) inserted a provision in the federal appropriations bill prohibiting the city from using any funds to implement the law.

In an interview with WAMU 88.5, Harris said he was concerned with the impact the law could have on teenage drug use, and would withdraw his objections if it were written more like Maryland's decriminalization law. That law requires that anyone under the age of 21 who is caught with marijuana attend a substance abuse program.

D.C. officials have defended the law by saying that it was written to respond to marijuana-related arrests that disproportionately target African-American residents. They have also argued against Harris' involvement in local affairs, but he responded by saying that because of the city's special status, "Congress is [D.C.'s] local legislature."

During a recent House hearing on D.C. decriminalization law, an official with the Department of Justice said that they would defer to states and local jurisdictions on the enforcement of marijuana laws.

In 1998, Congress blocked the implementation of a D.C. ballot initiative legalizing marijuana for medicinal use. That prohibition was lifted in 2009.

The administration's statement — which also backs budget autonomy for D.C. and opposes restrictions on the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs — says that unless changes are made to the appropriations bill, Obama will veto it.

Whitehouse Memo


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