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Pot Is Legal Now in D.C.—Just Not If You're a Federal Employee

Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

The ballot measure to legalize marijuana in the District of Columbia handily passed yesterday. D.C. residents over 21 will soon be able to possess, grow, and share pot (as long as Congress approves it). Many D.C. residents, though, still won't be allowed to light up. Federal employees, who make up almost 30 percent of the city’s workforce, are banned from using the drug, said Department of Justice spokesperson Patrick Rodenbush.

Although the local pot laws in D.C. might change, just as they did in Colorado and Washington, the federal law hasn’t. The federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, in the company of heroin and LSD. Colorado and Washington, states that voted to legalize marijuana in 2012, have already started grappling with the awkward clash between state legalization and the remaining federal law. In Denver, the Colorado Supreme Court is deciding whether a private company, Dish Network, was right in firing a quadriplegic employee for testing positive for using medical marijuana. The decision will likely provide guidance for whether private companies in D.C. have to abide by employees’ recreational use of pot off the job as well.

But unlike private employees, federal employees in every state remain subject to Ronald Reagan’s 1986 “drug-free federal workplace” executive order, which banned employees from using illegal drugs on- or off-duty. In the wake of legalization out West, federal employers like the USDA and Colorado National Park Service issued staff-wide memos reminding workers that all pot use is considered unacceptable. Marijuana use also remains illegal on federal property, and in D.C., that means legalization won’t touch places like the National Mall and Rock Creek Park, a wooded recreational area that covers a large part of the city’s northwestern quadrant. Plus, many of the people who work in D.C. during the day don't actually live in the district, but in Virginia and Maryland, where pot remains illegal. D.C. marijuana enthusiasts, who filled up a city bar Tuesday night to celebrate (including a rendition of “Blessed Ganja Herb”), might be cheering too early: Until federal law changes, there’s still a large chunk of their fellow D.C. residents who are left out of the high times.