Andy Harris’s Reefer Madness: Amendment To Block DC Decrim Could Do The Opposite

Aaron Houston Policy Advisor, Ghost Group
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Alarmed by recent gains we’ve made, including a House vote to stop DEA interference in state medical marijuana laws, one of the most ardent drug warriors in Congress is pushing back with with an effort to block meaningful marijuana reforms recently adopted by the District of Columbia by attaching a rider to the bill that funds the District.

Congressman Andy Harris (R-MD) successfully introduced and passed an amendment today during a House committee meeting that he believes will block DC’s recently adopted marijuana decriminalization law. He should probably hire new staff, because that’s not actually what his amendment will do.

He and his allies in the GOP don’t seem to be thinking clearly about this proposed policy, nor about the potential political consequences of demonstrating yet again just how out of touch they are with the vast majority of the American public (marijuana legalization is more popular than Congress by a factor of four).

Their Reefer Madness is impeding sound analysis.

Astonishingly, they apparently don’t realize that because of timing of the adoption of the local policy and some arcane procedures, if his amendment became law, it would lead to de facto marijuana legalization, since the police would be barred from spending any time on writing tickets ordered by the new local decriminalization policy. Since it’s virtually impossible that a congressional resolution of disapproval currently pending before Congress will be adopted before it expires in mid-July (separately from this amendment or the underlying spending bill), Harris’s amendment could end up causing District police to not enforce any marijuana laws if adopted, including the outdoor smoking ban.

Imagine DC police in future years eventually naming encounters where they stopped someone for publicly smoking a joint but were unable to cite them, “Harris Stops.” Ouch. Major fail there.

His amendment, however, would have some dire additional unintended consequences, the most egregious of which would include wreaking havoc on DC’s medical marijuana program, since the government would be barred from accepting any new patients or administering the current medical marijuana program.

This same amendment was in force for eleven years, following the passage of the District’s medical marijuana law in 1998 by voter initiative. That meant that despite overwhelming public support within the District for medical marijuana — and nationally, at the time around 80 percent — cancer and AIDS patients were left without access to medical marijuana. All because of some fanatical House Republicans.

In 2008 and 2009, I worked with one of them, former Congressman Bob Barr (R-GA), to repeal the amendment he originally sponsored when he was in the House in the late 90s. We would shuttle to offices and explain the impact of the amendment. Congressman Barr explained why what he had done was wrong, particularly that he now realized why it contravened basic principles of limited government.

We succeeded in getting the amendment taken out of the spending bill in 2009, news I learned on my wedding day while talking business on the car ride to our quiet little beach ceremony, much to the chagrin of my then-fiancée and now former wife.

Since that time, the District has implemented a medical marijuana program, at an incredibly slow rate, it’s worth noting. Patients and advocates were incredibly frustrated by how restrictive the program turned out to be, even though some recent reforms will soon expand the list of qualifying conditions. The upshot is that as a result, only the most desperately ill people in the District can currently qualify for medical marijuana. Congressman Harris’s proposal, while rhetorically aimed at marijuana decriminalization, would impact some really sick people.

His amendment would also block progress on a proposed marijuana legalization initiative in the District. Supporters are currently collecting signatures to place the measure on the fall ballot, but if Harris’s amendment became law, election officials within the District would be barred from processing the signatures or doing anything to advance the ballot language.

Some of the more clever leaders realize they should be embracing marijuana legalization as one of the surest ways to show a real commitment to reducing the size and scope of the federal government. Harris himself conceded during debate that voting against marijuana reforms will make him and his allies less popular.

We’ll see as the bill advances in coming weeks if leadership has truly figured this out. The probable saving grace is that House GOP leadership seems to understand they appear very out of touch at the moment. With 49 Republican members of Congress voting in favor of the House medical marijuana amendment a few weeks ago, it’s clear the tide is turning among the rank-and-file, especially among Tea Party-inclined members.

Maybe by the time the bill reaches the House floor, someone will explain to Congressman Harris that his amendment may cause police to not enforce the law at all. That would make for some great humble-pie-TV on CSPAN.