Maryland’s only Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to force a vote Wednesday to undo marijuana decriminalization in the District of Columbia.
Two congressional staffers familiar with the effort said Eastern Shore Rep. Andy Harris has drafted an amendment to preclude D.C. officials from implementing a new law to eliminate criminal penalties for possession of the plant in the nation’s capital.
Decriminalization passed the D.C. Council in March and was signed into law by Mayor Vincent C. Gray. The law is nearing the end of a required congressional review period. If Congress does not act to upend it, the law would replace the current federal penalty of up to $1,000 and a year in jail with a civil fine of just $25. Those caught smoking marijuana in public could be sentenced to a maximum of 60 days in jail, similar to the penalty for carrying an open container of alcohol.
A third of U.S. states, including Maryland, have taken similar actions to loosen marijuana penalties, but the District would be among the most lenient outside of Colorado or Washington state, where voters have legalized the sale and taxation of marijuana.
Calls and an e-mail to a spokeswoman for Harris were not immediately returned on Tuesday. CQ Roll Call reported that Harris confirmed he would “target” D.C.’s decriminalization law even though Maryland lawmakers recently passed a similar measure.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) issued a news release warning D.C. residents “have to fight, and fight we will” to protect the city’s marijuana law, which was approved after studies showed a wide racial disparity in arrest rates for drug possession in the city.
A congressional staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the Harris amendment said it would strike one word — “federal” — from a 148-page spending measure before the House Appropriations Committee. By striking that one word, Harris would prevent D.C. from spending not only federal funds but any of its own to change District penalties related to drugs. The amendment or “rider,” as it is known, could also limit the city’s plan to expand access to medical marijuana, advocates warned.
Similar budget maneuvers were used for 10 years by members of Congress to delay the start of D.C.’s medical marijuana program, but opinions on marijuana are changing. Nine House Republicans recently joined Democrats in backing a measure protecting other states’ medical marijuana funding.
Republican members of a House Oversight subcommittee last month sharply questioned the District’s move to decriminalize marijuana but gave only tentative indications that they might try to overturn it. Holmes Norton said it would be terribly ironic if Congress upended the D.C. law after protecting states’ rights.