It’s hard to pinpoint when the encounters turned so personal between marijuana legalization advocates and U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, the Republican from Baltimore County.
Or in October, when activist Rachel Donlan alleged that Harris slammed a door on her leg during a protest that ended with Donlan and another demonstrator lying down in the hall outside his Washington office and smoking marijuana. Harris disputed her account and said his wrist was bruised when the protesters “sought to forcibly enter the office.”
Five months later, Salisbury University student and “marijuana justice” advocate Jake Burdett pleaded guilty to illegal wiretapping after streaming a meeting with a Harris staffer via Facebook Live without permission.
The incidents — many memorialized in social media videos — point to a fundamental disagreement about not only marijuana, but also the boundaries of citizen activism.
Harris has been branded “Public Enemy No. 1” by the activists. He accuses them of “stalking” him.
“I don’t appreciate promoting protest that gets physical,” said Harris, who in 2014 tucked language into federal budget legislation that prohibited the District of Columbia from spending money to fully carry out a marijuana legalization law approved at the ballot that year. People can possess or use limited amounts of marijuana at home in Washington, but no one can sell it for recreational use.
Congress has continued to write the restriction into its spending measures — prompting activists to keep asking Harris why he thinks he knows more than District voters about what is good for them.
“All I know is, Mr. Eidinger has asked me the question,” said Harris, 62, a Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist who has a framed lab coat hanging on the wall of his office. “I’ve answered it, and he insists on . . . I’d use the word ‘stalking.’ My answer hasn’t changed, so I don’t know what different answer he expects.”
Harris feels strongly about marijuana because, he said, it has been linked to a host of physical and social ills. He has an outsize role in District governance as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which has powerful say over the city’s finances.
Eidinger, 45, who paid $900 a month for the Salisbury rental while keeping his home in the District, waves off Harris’s criticism. He said he is merely practicing civil disobedience.
“We’re not being aggressive; we’re being citizens,” said Eidinger, the social action director for Dr. Bronner’s, a soap company.
Eidinger has tried to speak to Harris at town hall meetings, in a parking lot and — last year — during the congressman’s Capitol Hill speech in front of an audience of lobbyists and executives at an herbal products trade association meeting.
That exchange in June began when Harris asked whether anybody had any questions. It immediately devolved into a peculiar discussion about Eidinger’s daughter, who attends the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a popular public school in Washington.
“You know me, I’m a constituent, actually,” Eidinger began.
“Well, kind of,” Harris replied from behind a lectern.
The dialogue, captured in a video posted on the DC Marijuana Justice Facebook page, continued.
Eidinger: No, I moved to Salisbury recently.
Harris: Except your daughter wants to go to a public school here in the city, so you still have to figure that out, I understand.
Eidinger: Well, you can have homes in multiple cities.
Harris: You sure can, but you can’t educate your children in multiple public school systems. Are you a member of this association, by the way?
Eidinger: Yes, I am. I represent a company that sells over $100 million worth of products a year.
Harris: I don’t consider cannabis a nutritional supplement. Next question.
Eidinger: I didn’t actually ask my question.
Harris thanked the audience and left.
“The marijuana activists have clearly gotten under his skin,” said attorney Mark Goldstone, who has represented many of them — including Donlan, who was charged with consumption of marijuana in a prohibited public space for the incident in the hallway. The case was dismissed after she agreed to stay away from the congressman’s office for three months, according to Goldstone.
Goldstone also represented Burdett, 21, who received a sentence of community service and probation in March for streaming the meeting with the Harris staff member.
“It saddens me that Rep. Harris has decided to needlessly drop the hammer to make an example out of me over a mistake I quickly corrected and apologized for,” Burdett said in an email.
Harris said this week that the Burdett meeting “was in my office in Salisbury, which is a private building where we rent an office. We have people who come to those offices with very personal problems. So our blanket rule is, there is no recording in this office.”
Harris, a former state senator, was easily reelected in November to his fifth term representing Maryland’s 1st Congressional District, which is made up of parts of the counties of Baltimore, Carroll and Harford, as well as the Eastern Shore.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said Harris is popular with many voters in the conservative district, regardless of what they might think of his marijuana position.
“He’s fine with his district,” Kromer said. But Harris is at odds with public opinion generally, including among young Republican voters. “Taken together, a majority of Americans support legalization. And a majority of Republican millennials support legalization,” she said.
Marijuana legalization has been discussed for years in the Maryland General Assembly without gaining much traction. Democratic leaders have indicated they might be open to putting the matter on the statewide ballot in 2020 for voters to decide. Medical marijuana is state-regulated, with local lawmakers given some leeway in the placement of the new businesses.
A Pew Research Center survey in October found that legalization is favored by 62 percent of Americans.
But Harris, the lone Republican in Maryland’s congressional delegation and a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, cites warnings from the National Institute on Drug Abuse about marijuana’s potential health hazards, including long-term cognitive effects on the developing brain.
District of Columbia law permits possession of limited amounts of recreational marijuana, but the Harris language has prevented officials from condoning or regulating its sale.
Because Republicans lost control of the U.S. House in the November elections, the language — which expires in October — will not appear in this year’s House spending bill. But it could still wind up in the final bill because the Senate and White House remain under Republican control.
“I would hope it would be [included] because I think we need to continue sending the message that we have to put the brakes on legalization of recreational marijuana until we deal with all the ramifications that legalization can have on basically the health status of the country,” Harris said.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and other Washington officials are hoping to defeat the rider, which they consider unwarranted congressional interference.
Eidinger said the lease on his Salisbury home expires this month, and — with no election this year — he isn’t renewing.
But he insists he will return to the Eastern Shore.
“I do intend to find a house in his district next year. I think it’s going to take a long time to get him out. Maybe after redistricting in 2020,” he said.