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House GOP Moves to Kill 'Poorly Done' D.C. Marijuana Decriminalization Law

Harris thinks the D.C. law is "poorly done." (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee is using the power of the purse to block the District from implementing a local law to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.  

On a 28-21 vote, mainly along party lines, lawmakers adopted an amendment sponsored by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., stating: "None of the funds contained in this Act may be used to enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution" of Schedule I drugs, including pot "for recreational purposes."  

"This is not because it's the politically popular thing to do," Harris told his colleagues, explaining that it was necessary because the legislation that D.C.'s elected officials enacted was "poorly done." Under the proposal, getting busted with one ounce or less of the drug would result in a fine of $25. The criminal offense currently carries up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. In Maryland, the state Harris calls home, possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana will be decriminalized on Oct. 1. Harris told CQ Roll Call he opposes the bill, signed by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley in April, that reduces penalties for first-time offenders to a fine of up to $100.  

Harris, a physician, framed his amendment as a way to protect the health of women and children, and keep the District's "skilled workforce" sharp by preventing residents from getting high. “We pride ourselves on a skilled workforce," he said during debate. "You think those skills get better when you’re intoxicated on marijuana? Don’t think so."  

Democrats objected to the measure, saying the decision to decriminalize should be left up to the District's elected officials. "D.C. decided that its law enforcement resources were not being used most efficiently," said Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., reminding his colleagues that the city had one of the highest marijuana arrest rates in the nation. "It seems we ought to respect that decision."  

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., reminded his colleagues that the House voted less than a month ago to cut funds for Drug Enforcement Agency raids on medical marijuana operations. "We agreed that it was time to back off on this," he said.  

Among the 27 Republicans who voted in favor of the measure (Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, was the 28th vote), some also voted for the measure to block the federal government from interfering with state laws on pot and hemp. Among them are Reps. Mark Amodei of Nevada, Chris Stewart of Utah and David Joyce of Ohio.  

Advocates for marijuana decriminalization point out that 17 states have already loosened their drug laws, and public sentiment appears to be on their side.  

"While the substance of his amendment is outrageous, I at least appreciate Rep. Harris admitting during the debate that voting for it won't do anything to help the polling numbers of members of Congress," said Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, in an email. "The public is way ahead of most politicians on what has quickly become a mainstream, majority-supported issue. Poll after poll shows that marijuana reform enjoys much broader support from voters than most elected officials do."  

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who has no vote on the floor, vowed to keep fighting. She is joined by DC Vote, an advocacy organization that has formed a coalition of 41 local and national allies to fight for home rule. They plan to call on allies in Congress to strip the marijuana amendment and other D.C. policy riders once the bill hits the House floor.  

DC Vote Executive Director Kimberly Perry called it "truly disappointing to see members of Congress continue to abuse their position in order to force their personal views on the residents of the District of Columbia.”