The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did Rep. Andy Harris inadvertently legalize marijuana possession in D.C.?

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.). (Cliff Owen/AP)

Shortly after noon Wednesday, the Republicans of the House Appropriations Committee (plus one Democrat) voted to block the District’s recently passed marijuana decriminalization law. Leading the charge was Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who said the measure was “bad policy” that would harm children.

But District lawyers are now exploring whether he might have actually moved to, in effect, legalize marijuana possession instead.

Two persons familiar with the matter but not authorized to speak to the media said the D.C. attorney general’s office is examining the potential effect of the Harris amendment, which is now part of a spending bill headed to the House floor but will not become law until the Senate approves a companion bill and compromise legislation passes both houses.

Even if the amendment survives a Senate conference, the decriminalization law converting marijuana possession from a misdemeanor into a $25 civil citation is likely to pass a congressional review period and take effect beforehand, sometime in mid to late July.

If the amendment — which bars the city from spending any funds to “enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution [of marijuana and other drugs] for recreational use” — then takes effect after the decriminalization statute is officially on the books, the city would be in the odd position of having a decriminalization law that it could not enforce.

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), acknowledged the matter is under legal review but declined to address the de facto legalization scenario. “This potential unintended consequence only underscores why Congress should not meddle in local D.C. laws,” he said.

But the officials familiar with the matter said the amendment could prevent the police department from printing citations, prevent cops from writing and processing them, and prevent the city government from adjudicating them. The upshot is that there might be no penalty for minor marijuana possession, they said.

The federal law against marijuana possession would still be applicable, but a mayor and/or police chief could order the police department to make small-time drug collars a low, if not the lowest, law-enforcement priority — which has happened in several major jurisdictions. Ribeiro would not address how Gray would react in those circumstances.

A spokeswoman for Harris did not return an e-mail seeking comment on the scenario.