President Joe Biden is again proposing to keep blocking Washington, D.C. from legalizing marijuana sales as part of the budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2023 that he sent to Congress on Monday. To the relief of advocates, however, he again kept a separate rider intact to protect legal medical cannabis programs from federal intervention.
Advocates and lawmakers expressed frustration and disappointment when the president’s last budget failed to remove the D.C. rider, which was sponsored in Congress by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) and has continued to be annually renewed. It prevents D.C. from using its local tax dollars from implementing a system of legal adult-use sales even though local voters approved a legalization ballot measure in 2014.
Both the House and Senate appropriators removed that language from their Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations legislation in spite of Biden’s request. However, it was ultimately included in a bicameral omnibus spending bill that was introduced by congressional leaders earlier this month and will remain in effect until at least the end of September.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) slammed the president’s action in a press release.
“I have a hard time reconciling the administration’s strong support for D.C. statehood, which would give D.C. not only voting representation in Congress but also full local self-government, with a budget that prohibits D.C. from spending its local funds on recreational marijuana commercialization,” she said. “With Democrats controlling the White House, House and Senate, we have the best opportunity in over a decade to enact a budget that does not contain any anti-home-rule riders.
The latest Biden budget separately stipulates that D.C. cannot use federal funding to “distribute any needle or syringe for the purpose of preventing the spread of blood borne pathogens in any location that has been determined by the local public health or local law enforcement authorities to be inappropriate for such distribution.” That seems to contravene the administration’s stated support for harm reduction services.
That said, the budget proposal for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) does notably move to “remove the word ‘abuse’ from the agency names within HHS—including the Substance use And Mental Health Services Administration, the National Institute on Alcohol Effects and Alcohol-Associated Disorders, and the National Institute on Drugs and Addiction.”
“Individuals do not choose to ‘abuse’ drugs and alcohol; they suffer from a disease known as addiction,” the administration said. “It is a high priority for this Administration to move past outdated and stigmatizing language that is harmful to the individuals and families that suffer from addiction.”
On another positive note for advocates, the 2023 budget proposal maintains a separate rider that prevents the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere in the implementation of medical cannabis programs in states and territories.
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Past administrations—both Democratic and Republican—have proposed scrapping that language. President Donald Trump and President Barack Obama each called for ending the policy as part of their budget proposals. But Congress has consistently upheld it regardless since it was first enacted in 2014.
The House on several occasions has approved an even more expansive amendment that would have provided protections for all state and territory marijuana programs, rather than just medical cannabis systems. But the Senate has not followed suit and the provision has never been included in final spending legislation sent to the president.
When Trump signed that large-scale spending legislation in 2019, he attached a statement that said he is empowered to ignore the congressionally approved medical cannabis rider, stating that the administration “will treat this provision consistent with the President’s constitutional responsibility to faithfully execute the laws of the United States.”
Advocates were initially optimistic that Biden would propose removing the other long-standing rider on the District of Columbia, but he kept it in again in spite of the fact that he did push to remove separate, D.C.-specific language blocking the city from using its funds to provide abortion services.
The inconsistency with which Biden’s budget approaches D.C. is all the more interesting given that while the president has said repeatedly that states should be empowered to make their own decisions regarding adult-use legalization—and he also supports statehood status for the District—he wants to prevent it from having that same right.
Also again—and perhaps unsurprisingly—Biden did not propose gutting the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) as Trump did. The former president called for a roughly 90 percent cut in the agency’s budget in his proposals, but Congress did not follow suit. Biden, meanwhile, helped establish the drug czar’s office during his time in the Senate.
Biden’s budget also includes an estimated $16 million in funding to support industrial hemp production for 2023 and proposes to continue longstanding riders protecting state programs from federal intervention.