MERE hours before the midnight deadline last night, the House narrowly passed a $1.1 trillion federal budget agreement to fund the government through most of next year. The plan now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to pass in a matter of days. But this budget has a few questionable odds and ends lurking in its 1,600 pages (which we will cover in more depth in the coming week). One provision in particular has many in Washington, DC, wondering whether the city’s plan to legalise small amounts of marijuana—which seven out of ten voters backed in November—is about to go up in smoke.

Pot is “potent stuff,” argues Andy Harris, a Republican Maryland Congressman. Legalising the drug will simply make it easier for teens to get their hands on it, he claims, and “it’s poison to a teenager’s brain.” This is why he and several other Republicans decided to bury deep inside the budget’s many pages a spending "rider" to prevent DC from moving forward with its plans. Because DC is not a part of any state, Congress has the power to interfere directly in its affairs in a way it cannot in any other municipality in America. (It bears noting that Maryland also decriminalised marijuana this year, but Mr Harris doesn’t seem as irked by that law, or as nervous about his own constituents’ brains.)

This is unfortunate for several reasons. Not only was DC’s legislation law democratically decided by a strong majority, but also it makes a lot of sense. The city’s crusade against pot has been terribly expensive, and also unevenly destructive. Blacks in the nation’s capital are eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for possessing pot—more than twice the national average—even though usage rates for both races are about even, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2010 91% drug arrests in DC were black. It costs the city more than $26m a year to apprehend, convict and incarcerate people for this crime. But the real price is harder to quantify. “We’ve got so many young people who are unable to get jobs because they have a criminal charge against them. And very often it’s just for a small amount of marijuana,” explained Tommy Wells, an outgoing DC Councilmember, earlier this year. “We want our police to really focus on violent crimes and other crimes,” he added.

DC is only the most extreme example of a national trend. Smoking pot is fairly common, even though it remains illegal in most parts of the country. Around a fifth of 18-to-25 year-olds will have taken a hit in the past month. But while the effects of the drug are more or less the same for all tokers, the punishments are not. In all regions of the country, black people were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, on average, than white people between 2001 and 2010, according to the ACLU. The racial disparity increased considerably over the evaluated period, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates.

The costs of these arrests, prosecutions and convictions are heady. Marijuana possession charges make up nearly half of all drug arrests. States spent over $3.61 billion combined enforcing them in 2010. But the collateral damage may be even dearer. Drug arrests break up homes and potentially harm whole communities. Convictions often affect a person’s eligibility for jobs, student financial aid and public housing. The fact that whites often use marijuana without legal consequence while blacks must worry about getting arrested naturally breeds mistrust for police officers, and for the criminal justice system as a whole.

This was the rationale behind a campaign to first decriminalise and then legalise possession of pot in DC this year. Whereas other states have argued that softer drug laws would raise tax revenue and hinder the drug trade (often because past legalisation efforts have taken place in states with small black populations), in DC the case was made on civil rights grounds. “Disparities in police stops, prosecutorial charging and sentencing decisions have wreaked havoc in black communities,” argued Michael Eric Dyson and Malik Burnett in an op-ed in the Washington Post in October. “In D.C., a vote to legalize marijuana is a vote for justice.”

DC’s voters agreed. Following the city council’s decision in the spring to decriminalise marijuana, residents in November chose wholeheartedly to legalise small amounts of the stuff for personal use. Instead of being a substance that costs the city millions to contain—often to the detriment of its poorest black residents—pot would become something the city could regulate and tax.

This all seems rather sensible and democratic. It’s a pity, then, that Mr Harris and other Republicans may succeed in using the “cromnibus” bill to quash DC’s legalisation plans. Although half of Americans want marijuana legalised, and a majority believe the federal government should defer to the choices made by states, Congressmen still have the power to meddle in the District’s affairs. And meddling is something they seem eager to do, even if Republicans traditionally tend to support local laws and state’s rights.

What happens next will probably be fought in the courts (hardly a cost-saving enterprise). In the meantime, DC's voters are left to feel a bit out of puff.

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