A Republican-led congressional committee voted Wednesday to block implementation of a local law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana in the nation’s capital, leaving uncertain the fate of the measure set to take effect next month.
The move came in the form of an amendment to a major spending bill and has left activists and city officials in a lurch as they try to dissect its implications.
Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland Republican, sponsored the amendment and argued that marijuana use can negatively affect the brain development of children.
“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,” said Mr. Harris, a doctor representing Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “When I became a physician, I took an oath to do no harm, and decriminalizing marijuana will harm D.C. residents, especially youth.”
Mr. Harris also argued that the city’s law was poorly crafted, calling it “bad policy” and saying a similar law passed this year decriminalizing marijuana in Maryland included provisions that refer teen violators for drug treatment and include progressively more serious penalties for repeat offenders.
The D.C. Council in March adopted the legislation to make possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana punishable by a civil fine of $25 while preserving criminal penalties for smoking pot in public.
As with all D.C. laws, the legislation had to undergo a period of congressional review by Congress before taking effect. Rather than pass a “disapproval resolution” that would have negated the law, the amendment, or “rider,” passed Wednesday stipulates that as a precondition for the District receiving federal appropriations neither federal nor local funds can be used to lessen penalties for marijuana use or possession.
The 28-21 vote in the House Appropriations Committee largely came down on party lines, with Republicans favoring the amendment to the 2015 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill, which includes funds directed to the D.C. government.
The full House will still have to consider the entire bill, and a compromise will have to be drawn with the Senate’s spending plan — which observers say is unlikely to include a similar restriction.
City lawyers are reviewing the text of Mr. Harris‘ amendment to determine in what ways it will restrict the city from spending funds.
Drug policy advocates Wednesday floated the notion that because the law will go into effect before the federal spending bill, the amendment could end up repealing enforcement of local marijuana laws entirely. Others worried that it could shut down the city’s medical marijuana program, which was held up for nearly a decade as a result of a similar budget rider. Riders have been inserted into bills in the past to prevent city officials from spending money to implement controversial programs having to do with things like abortion and needle exchanges and even pay raises for D.C. Council members.
Mr. Harris‘ spokeswoman, Erin Montgomery, said the amendment was meant to block federal funds from being used to reduce penalties on or legalize any form of marijuana use and to block local D.C. funds from being used to reduce penalties for any “recreational use” — meaning that local funds could still be used on the city’s medical marijuana program.
Passage of the rider was a significant blow to D.C. officials, who approved the measure amid concerns that the city’s marijuana laws were being inequitably enforced against black residents. The law put the city among 17 states that have decriminalized marijuana, as federal officials in President Obama’s Justice Department have largely stepped back and allowed states to decide the issue for themselves despite the fact that the drug remains illegal under federal law.