With amendment passed, Rep. Andy Harris keeps fighting D.C. marijuana law


The “Harris Amendment” is headed to the House floor, but Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) continues to tangle with his critics. (Cliff Owen/AP)

His controversial amendment is now officially part of a House budget bill, but Rep. Andy Harris’s work to undermine the District’s marijuana decriminalization isn’t over.

In tweets and communications with reporters, Harris (R-Md.) and staff have continued to rail against the decriminalization bill, which converts the possession of less than one ounce of cannabis from an arrestable misdemeanor to a $25 civil citation.

While many of Harris’s objections have been on public health grounds — his office offered references to several scientific studies and federal reports in response to an inquiry — he has also taken a stab at tangling with the D.C. Council’s main justification for passing the law: the racial disparity in marijuana arrests and their effect on society.

Press Secretary Erin Montgomery said in a Friday morning e-mail that Harris’s office contacted D.C. corrections officials to find out what percentage of current D.C. jail inmates are incarcerated for marijuana possession. The response: Less than 1 percent of current inmates have been jailed on “marijuana-related offenses, none of which were purely possession-related offenses. The offenses for which they were incarcerated were possession with intent to distribute or distribution.”

That punch might not land as solidly as Harris might think. A single day’s inmate census notwithstanding, the D.C. Council’s rationale for passing the decriminalization bill was based more on the disparity in arrests and prosecutions than the level of incarceration. The report filed by the council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee included four years of statistics on the disposition of marijuana possession cases collected by the D.C. Sentencing and Criminal Code Revision Commission:


And the report further laid out how it was arrests that needed to be addressed, not incarceration:

These arrests come at a high price to the District. Marijuana arrests take up valuable time of law enforcement officers, who could be spending their time preventing more serious crimes. After an arrest, the District incurs costly expenditures for processing, public defenders, and trials. For those who are convicted and sentenced, incarceration adds another expense.

Beyond the financial costs to the District, there is a far more important cost: the devastating toll marijuana arrests take on our residents and neighborhoods. Every person who is arrested for possessing small quantities of marijuana can be legally discriminated against in employment, housing, and education. These individuals often lose their right to food assistance and other forms of public support. Furthermore, it is well known that even a short period of incarceration can do serious harm to an individual’s mental and physical health. And when we incarcerate someone, we also risk punishing that person’s family and community, especially when parents are taken away from their children. The arrest data shows that the District’s African-American community has borne the brunt of these costs.

The council report, however, did not much contend with Harris’s public health arguments — including the claim that marijuana use negatively affects cognitive function, especially in youth — except to say that marijuana is “generally accepted to be no more harmful that alcohol or tobacco, perhaps less so.” A few witnesses testified that the decriminalization bill could harm youth, but no scientific evidence appears to have been entered in the record.

In any case, it doesn’t appear there will be any colloquy on these issues anytime soon. On Friday morning, D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate David A. Catania (I-At Large) visited Harris’s office to arrange for a meeting. His chief of staff, Brendan Williams-Kief, who accompanied Catania to the Longworth House Office Building, said Catania spoke with a deputy chief of staff but received no commitment to a meeting with Harris.

Instead, Harris’s office almost immediately provided reporters with a statement attacking Catania and his motives, calling the visit a “campaign prop”:

When David Catania announced his candidacy for D.C. mayor, he said, ‘We need to talk about how our kids are ready to succeed’ (Washington Post, 3/12/14). Really? Was he serious? Passing marijuana decriminalization bills for teenagers is not the way to lower D.C.’s shamefully high rate of drug abuse among teenagers — and certainly not the way to create a job-skill environment to deal with skyrocketing teen unemployment in the District, especially among minority youth. Mr. Catania can come see me when he’s ready to deal seriously with the problems of drug abuse and unemployment among youth in the District. This is just another mayoral campaign prop.

Similar tweets followed. Said Williams-Kief, “We await his response as to when in his busy recess schedule he might be able to carve some time. … We are ready and willing to meet with him whenever his calendar permits.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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