Why Is This Maryland Congressman Trying to Undo DC’s Marijuana Decriminalization?

Representative Andy Harris says he’s worried about teenagers’ health. He’s also gunning for a House leadership job.
Harris. Photograph via Facebook.
Harris. Photograph via Facebook.

DC Council member and mayoral candidate David Catania marched into the Capitol Hill office of Representative Andy Harris Friday morning, demanding to know why the Maryland Republican is so keen on derailing DC’s marijuana decriminalization law. It’s possible it was more campaign stunt than policy plea: With the House out of session, Harris was back home on the Eastern Shore, with only  a skeleton crew left to handle Catania. 

But after Catania’s visit, Harris’s staff issued an email statement in response to the Catania’s visit.

“When David Catania announced his candidacy for DC mayor, he said, ‘We need to talk about how our kids are ready to succeed.’,” Harris’s statement reads. “Really? Was he serious? Passing marijuana decriminalization bills for teenagers is not the way to lower DC’s shamefully high rate of drug abuse among teenagers.”

But Harris’s office didn’t stop there. A couple hours after Catania’s visit, Harris’s press secretary, Erin Montgomery, e-mailed reporters again, claiming that decriminalization won’t unclog the judicial system, as some advocates say. Harris’s office checked to see how many people DC currently has locked up for marijuana-related offenses.

“As of yesterday, there were 0.5 percent of persons (less than 1 percent) at DC [Department of Corrections] incarcerated on marijuana-related offenses, none of which were purely possession-related offenses,” Montgomery wrote. “The offenses for which they were incarcerated were possession with intent to distribute or distribution.”

But the DC Council took up marijuana decriminalization last year because of a massive racial disparity in arrests and prosecutions, not incarcerations, a fact that makes a one-day head-count of the city jail a flimsy statistic at best. 

Nearly 75 percent of people convicted of a single count of marijuana possession in DC last year were given probation instead of jail time, according to the DC Sentencing and Criminal Code Revision Commission. But those verdicts still leave dark marks on citizen’s records that can lead to lifelong difficulties in education, housing, and employment prospects. And, with blacks being arrested for possession as much as eight times as often as whites despite no racial difference in the rate of marijuana use, the socioeconomic rationale for decriminalization is even clearer.

In a phone interview about Harris’s statement, Montgomery retreated to her boss’s accustomed medical argument about pot and kids instead. “As a physician, father, and lawmaker he’s going to protect children,” Montgomery says. She says Harris has not discussed the decriminalization measure with any DC law enforcement officials.

In his statement, Harris also called Catania’s visit a “campaign prop,” but according to Catania’s chief of staff, Brendan Williams-Kief, Catania is not the only one strutting for the cameras here. Harris, says Williams-Kief, is trying to whip up his own campaign to take over the Republican Study Committee, an influential group of socially conservative lawmakers in need of a new chairman with its previous leader, Representative Steve Scalise, becoming House majority whip.

“If there’s any kind of stunt going on, it’s Representative Harris jumping on a red-meat issue as he’s seeking a leadership post,” Williams-Kief says. 

Messing with DC seems to be a prerequisite for the study committee chair. One of his rivals for the post is Representative Louie Gohmert, a mouthy Texan who in 2011 introduced a bill that would have permitted members of Congress to carry concealed handguns around town.

If so, Harris has his leadership campaign off to a good start: In trying to gut the decriminalization law, he’s earned the enmity of WAMU host Kojo Nnamdi, who singled out Harris in a preview of today’s installment of The Politics Hour.

“We welcome Representative Andy Harris, not to the show, but to the ranks of bottom-feeding, low-life, dictatorial, bullying, outside interlopers,” Nnamdi said.

Lump that in with Council member David Grosso calling him an “idiot” earlier this week, and Harris might have Gohmert beat.

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