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Harris becomes the face of latest anti-pot measure

Rep. Harris says he would have supported stronger pot language in spending bill.

Rep. Andy Harris re-emerged Wednesday as a leading opponent of legalizing marijuana after lawmakers included a provision in the $1 trillion federal funding bill that appeared to block the District of Columbia from loosening its pot laws.

The controversial addition, which took D.C. officials and legalization advocates by surprise, also served to solidify the conservative Republican's position as a top target of those Washingtonians who believe Congress is meddling in the affairs of the nation's capital — and ignoring the will of its voters.

Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress, has long opposed efforts to legalize pot, even as proponents have gained ground in state after state.

The Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist said Wednesday that he believes the anti-legalization measure, tucked into the 1,600-page government funding bill, should have been even stronger.

"This is the language that we got bipartisan, bicameral agreement to," he said.

Several Democrats criticized the provision — and one suggested the district could circumvent it. But the policy rider has received less flak on Capitol Hill than some others, including changes to campaign finance rules and Wall Street regulations.

Negotiators from both parties agreed to all of the provisions before the bill was made public Tuesday.

The marijuana rider drew particular attention from some Democrats, who said the district, like the states, should be permitted to set its own rules on pot. Four states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's representative in Congress, said D.C. officials pushed to change the city's drug laws after studies showed blacks were convicted of marijuana possession at a far higher rate than whites. Those convictions, she said, then make it harder for people to find jobs.

"I'm not for smoking marijuana," she said. "I'm not for smoking anything … [but] the city felt it had to go ahead and take away this stigma."

District officials approved decriminalization in March, changing possession of up to an ounce of pot from a misdemeanor to a civil violation, with a penalty of $25. District voters approved a ballot measure last month to fully legalize possession of up to two ounces of marijuana.

The provision included in the spending bill focuses on legalization. It would prohibit the district from spending any money — including its own revenue — to enact that initiative.

Harris, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, tried this summer to block decriminalization with an amendment to another spending bill. That effort failed.

He said Wednesday that he would have supported such a move again in the current spending bill but suggested there was not support for it.

Norton suggested Wednesday that legalization was "enacted" at the time voters approved the ballot measure and therefore the language in the spending bill might be moot. Republicans disagreed with that assessment.

An aide to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said city attorneys are analyzing the provision.

Regardless of the outcome, the two paragraphs on marijuana included in the much larger spending bill reopened the long-standing debate over the role Congress has overseeing the District and its residents.

"We have a federal system," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. "Why are the people in the District of Columbia denied the right to make their own policies affecting where they live?"

Cardin said he opposes the marijuana provision but was leaning toward supporting the underlying funding bill, which is intended to avoid a government shutdown.

Harris says the Constitution treats the District differently from the states and that federal lawmakers have a legitimate oversight role. He said that opponents have all but ignored studies noting potential health affects of marijuana use.

Harris cites studies such as a report last month from the University of Texas at Dallas that linked long-term marijuana use with certain brain abnormalities.

"I want to take this out of the realm of home rule for D.C. and make this an argument about making sure everybody understands the science," he said. "I'm disappointed that the opponents don't want to argue it on that level."

The conservative Republican has long opposed changing drug laws to accommodate marijuana, dating back to his time as a state senator in Annapolis. He raised concerns in 2003 when then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he was open to decriminalizing medical marijuana for the terminally ill.

Harris who represents the Eastern Shore and portions of Baltimore's northern suburbs, was elected to the House in 2010. He represents a state that changed its own law on marijuana this year: Lawmakers removed criminal penalties for possession of up to 10 grams.

Though he has become the face of the anti-pot effort in Congress, it's unclear how much of a role Harris had in pushing the language into the current spending bill. He said Wednesday that he consulted with GOP leaders about the issue frequently as they crafted the measure but also said that "this was all dealt with at a much higher level."

Harris has nevertheless become a focus of those on the other side. After he introduced his amendment this summer, some said Washingtonians should boycott Ocean City, which is located in his district. And on Tuesday, Harris was interrupted repeatedly by protesters as he attempted to give a speech on the issue in Washington.

It's not clear whether Harris, by pressing the issue in Washington, could put political pressure on the state's other high-profile Republican, Gov.-elect Larry Hogan, to address marijuana in Maryland. Harris had been the state's top Republican until Hogan won the gubernatorial election last month.

Hogan has declined to discuss his stance on a host of issues until after his inauguration in January. Spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said Wednesday she had nothing to add to comments she made in November.

In those comments, she simply noted that Hogan had "said on the campaign trail that he believes some patients do benefit from medical marijuana."

Advocates said they think it's unlikely the incoming governor will attempt to get a change to the state law through the Democratic-controlled legislature.

"Congress feels like it can do this to D.C. because the lawmakers are not accountable to D.C. voters," said Rachelle Yeung, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy group based in Washington.

"Governor-elect Hogan is accountable to Maryland voters," she said. "If he were to [propose changes] it would put his own career, which hasn't even begun yet, at risk."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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