Michael Botticelli, the U.S. drug czar, said on Friday that he agrees Congress should not interfere with Washington D.C. voters’ decision to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults.
“As a resident of the District, I might not agree about legalization, but I do agree with our own ability to spend our own money the way that we want to do that,” Botticelli, the acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said during a meeting at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Though he personally opposes to marijuana use, Botticelli’s statements are another signal of the increasing shift in drug policy politics. Historically, drug czars are uncompromising defenders of the war on drugs and vehemently opposed to legalization. The Obama administration, Botticelli noted on Friday, also supports the District’s ability to govern itself.
“The president, as it relates to the District, I think was very clear that the District should stick to its home rule,” said Botticelli.
Washingtonians approved marijuana legalization in last year’s midterm election, but Congressional intervention scuttled the District’s attempt to relax laws. Because D.C. is a federal district and not a state, Congress supervises the city's budget and laws.
“We’re sorry to hear he is opposed to making marijuana legal for adults, but at least he agrees states and the District should be able to,” Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. “This is a big step for someone who works in an office that has for decades gone out of its way to keep marijuana illegal everywhere and at any cost."
Local politicians and activists supported the 2014 measure as a way to end racial disparities in pot possession arrests. Studies show that black Washingtonians were roughly eight times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana charge than their white counterparts before the city council voted to decriminalize marijuana use last summer. Under that law, residents caught with up to an ounce of cannabis are subject to a $25 fine, but not a criminal record.
Congress in December attempted to block the D.C. measure after Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., an adamant pot opponent, added a rider to the stopgap spending bill.
The move infuriated local lawmakers, who depend on federal funds for some of their operating budget.
The White House also voiced skepticism.
“[T]he president supports the principle of home rule and he believes that Congress should not interfere with local decisions by the citizens of the District of Columbia about how they should be governed," a White House official told Politico.
President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget could allow for D.C.’s legalization and taxation of marijuana to go through. In the budget, the president proposes that the District of Columbia be allowed to spend its own money regulating marijuana.