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A congressional rider named after Maryland Rep. Andy Harris that prohibits the District from using any funds to “legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with” marijuana may just go up in smoke this week, advocates hope.
Known in drug-reform circles as the “Harris Amendment,” the measure made waves in 2014, when the physician-turned-congressman inserted it at the last minute into a federal appropriations act that has sway over D.C.’s budget. Since then, legal-pot and statehood activists have pilloried the rider as a prime example of congressional Republican interference in local affairs, motivated by petty politics rather than sound judgment. Now, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and her ally Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, plan to introduce language during this year’s House budget vote that would essentially strike the Harris rider from the omnibus bill, restricting it to federal—but not District—funds.
“Four states have legalized the possession of marijuana for recreational use, and they either have set up a tax and regulatory system or are in the process of doing so,” Norton explains in remarks prepared for a Tuesday session of the House Rules Committee. “Regulating marijuana like alcohol would allow D.C., instead of drug dealers, to control marijuana production, distribution, sales and revenue collection.”
Rohrabacher’s office hasn’t returned a request for comment on his motivations for cosponsoring the amendment, but he has a strong record on drug reform, particularly around medical marijuana. (He’s even admitted to trying it in office.) Legal-weed activists say this week’s vote on the the Harris amendment—the first in the rider’s existence—will be close.
“For Republicans, this issue is less about D.C. and more about common-sense marijuana reform,” says Kaitlyn Boecker, an analyst for the Drug Policy Alliance. “These members have taken multiple votes signaling that federal interference with local marijuana laws should stop, and they’re applying those same principles here…In addition, there’s a recognition that D.C. now has legal marijuana with no way to regulate it, which is highly problematic and was not the original intention of the rider.”
So even though the District is not a state (at least not yet), the principles of states’ rights could help it in the context of a majority-Republican Congress. Besides, proponents of legal marijuana say, the federal goverment has nothing to lose in allowing D.C. to spend its local funds on establishing a tax-and-regulate regime for cannabis. (It’s been attempted.)
Kate Bell, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, says her group hopes that House Republicans will abide by their values in an election year and “stop tying the hands of D.C.’s elected representatives.” Congressional meddling, she adds, “is especially nonsensical” given that the District already permits residents to grow and use weed at home, under Initiative 71. As a result of the rider, “nonmedical sales stay in the criminal market,” untaxed, Bell notes.
There’s some precedent for Republicans taking the high road, so to speak. In 2015, more than 40 such members of Congress voted in favor of an amendment that limited the Department of Justice interference in legal-cannabis states.
Apparently Harris is coming around, too—well, sort of. Although the draft of the fiscal year 2017 House appropriations bill still contains the rider bearing him name, he’s getting behind a push for fewer restrictions on studying medical pot.