WASHINGTON -- An amendment that would make it impossible for the District of Columbia to lessen penalties for marijuana possession -- and possibly to legalize the drug -- passed Wednesday in the House Committee on Appropriations, drawing a rebuke from the District's mayor.
Under the rider, added to a spending bill, D.C. would not be able to spend any money to implement policies lowering the penalties for marijuana possession. Earlier this year, Mayor Vincent Gray (D) signed off on a law making possession of small amounts of the drug a civil infraction (similar to a parking ticket) instead of a criminal one.
In November, D.C. voters may be able to vote on full legalization of marijuana. But the new amendment also could block the District from implementing such a law.
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who proposed the amendment in committee, said that his background in medicine motivated his efforts to block the District law.
"As a physician, I have read study after study on the devastating effects of marijuana use, especially on developing brains of teenagers," Harris, who is an anesthesiologist, said in a statement. "Congress has the authority to stop irresponsible actions by local officials, and I am glad we did for the health and safety of children throughout the District."
Harris and Gray battled over the rider Wednesday on Twitter, reflecting the often fraught relationship between the District and the federal authorities that oversee its budget. Maryland recently moved to reduce penalties for marijuana use, against Harris' opposition.
"Ironic that a representative from a state that has decriminalized marijuana would interject himself into DC's decision to do the same," Gray, who lost the Democratic primary earlier this year, wrote.
Harris responded, again citing his medical expertise: "I opposed it in MD too. Decriminalizing marijuana will harm kids. U don't have to be a dr to know that - though I am."
"You have a right to your views," Gray tweeted in response. "But I ask you to respect the decision of the elected reps of the 640K+ residents of DC."
Other advocates for decriminalization and D.C.'s autonomy have decried the amendment since it was announced on Tuesday.
"While the substance of his amendment is outrageous, I at least appreciate Rep. Harris admitting during the debate that voting for it won't do anything to help the polling numbers of members of Congress," said Tom Angell, chairman of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority.
"Representative Harris can't overturn the marijuana decriminalization laws of the 18 states that have decriminalized marijuana so he has stooped to using autocratic, anti-democratic power to seek to overturn our local laws," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) in a statement on Tuesday.
Some also questioned why Harris, who is from a state that has decriminalized marijuana, would target the District's own attempt at decriminalization.
"That Rep. Harris is picking on a majority black district and no other jurisdiction with marijuana decriminalization is very telling. His own state has decriminalized marijuana but he's not interfering with it," Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.
Harris' amendment is not without precedent. It is similar to one championed by former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) in 1998 that blocked implementation in D.C. of a voter initiative there that would have allowed medicinal usage of the drug.