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House Committee Votes to Prevent DC Marijuana Decriminalization

The Maryland representative who sponsored the move says he did it to save teenagers’ brains.
Photograph via Shutterstock.

Maryland Representative Andy Harris made good on his promise Wednesday to pass an amendment to an appropriations bill that would derail the District’s marijuana decriminalization law, slated to take effect in mid-July. Harris’s amendment does not overturn the decriminalization law, but it seeks to prohibit the District from spending funds to implement it. 

Harris, Maryland’s only Republican member of Congress and a physician, says he is only trying to save teenagers’ brains.

“As a physician, I have read study after study on the devastating effects of marijuana use, especially on developing brains of teenagers,” Harris says in a statement released by his office after the House Appropriations Committee voted to attach his amendment to the bill that authorizes the District to execute its fiscal 2015 budget.

The 28-21 vote fell mostly along party lines; only Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, switched sides for Harris’s measure.

“Congress has the authority to stop irresponsible actions by local officials, and I am glad we did for the health and safety of children throughout the District,” Harris continues. “When I became a physician, I took an oath to do no harm, and decriminalizing marijuana will harm DC residents, especially youth.”

Despite Harris’s legislation, DC’s law, which Mayor Vince Gray signed in March, will take effect next month at the end of its congressional review period. Harris’s amendment is unlikely to become the law of the land, though. Even if it gets through the Republican-controlled House, it is unlikely the Democratic-run Senate will attach a similar rider to its version of the appropriations bill, much less reach President Obama’s desk.

Under DC’s new law, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana will result in a $25 fine rather than criminal charges.

Supporters of decriminalization are quick to note that Harris’s amendment, if it took effect, would do far more harm than good.

“By any measure, the war on drugs, particularly on marijuana, has been a failure and severely impacted black communities and communities of color,” says Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, the executive director of DC’s chapter of the ACLU. The push for marijuana decriminalization was largely inspired by an ACLU report last year finding that the District locks up black people for marijuana-related offenses eight times as often as white people, despite no difference in the rate of consumption.

“I think he’s an idiot,” says DC Council member David Grosso, an outspoken supporter of marijuana reform. “These guys have the inability to sway public opinion in their own jurisdictions, and they come here and they have an opportunity to push something against the District of Columbia because of our second-class status. We’ve been down this path before. They get a checkmark back home because they mess with DC.”

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Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.