Last week, D.C. Vote, a 40,000-member advocacy group pushing for District of Columbia voting rights, called on supporters to boycott Eastern Shore vacation spots — including Ocean City — this summer. Outgoing D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray even suggested that city residents who do end up in a vacation destination anywhere in Maryland’s 1st Congressional District may want to bring along a picket sign.
Their collective ire isn’t really directed at the various hoteliers, restaurant owners, condo managers or lifeguards who stand to lose should such a boycott succeed, but at Rep. Andy Harris, the Republican congressman from Cockeysville whose district happens to include the Eastern Shore. Last month, Dr. Harris succeeded in attaching an amendment to a 2015 spending bill that would prevent D.C. from using local funds to decriminalize marijuana.
There are several notable elements in this imbroglio. First, anyone who believes that Dr. Harris might change his mind because of a potential economic threat to his district doesn’t know Dr. Harris, a man not given to self-doubt or the concerns of others. This is someone who actively fights against efforts by the EPA to reduce pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay and to forestall the effects of climate change and rising sea levels, either of which would be far more ruinous to his waterfront district than a mere summer boycott.
More remarkable is that Dr. Harris, a reliable Club For Growth and tea party acolyte who so often preaches against an overbearing federal government, is so proud to have thwarted the will of District residents. The decriminalization measure has the support of 80 percent of the populace, according to a recent poll.
But wait, the hypocrisy runs much deeper than that. The Maryland General Assembly this year passed legislation decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, a policy supported by somewhere between 70 percent and 90 percent of Marylanders, depending on the poll. In other words, the people living in Dr. Harris’ own district will see the benefits of the decriminalization that the congressman wants to deny D.C. residents. That Dr. Harris is white and a majority of the District is African-American, a group far more often discriminated against by enforcement of existing marijuana laws, should not be lost on anyone either.
Dr. Harris claims to have introduced the marijuana amendment in an effort to protect children — and he pulls out the “P” card (his credentials as a Johns Hopkins physician) to do so. But then he also says that D.C. police can always choose not to enforce existing marijuana possession laws on their own — essentially conceding that his tough-on-drugs crusade is an empty gesture that might actually cause more harm if it leads to no marijuana possession restrictions of any kind being enforced.
The reality is that the District has one of the nation’s highest per capita arrest rates for marijuana possession, according to a recent American Civil Liberties Union report, and more than 90 percent of those arrested are black. That disparity in arrest rates (despite surveys that show whites and blacks use marijuana in equal measure) is a major reason why the D.C. City Council passed decriminalization last spring when the General Assembly did. The claim that the law might increase teen use of marijuana is simply not supported by recent studies.
House Republicans have long made kicking District government around a veritable sport and, as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has observed, often do so to raise their standing among conservatives. And that would be classic Andy Harris — to confidently impose his will on others with a breathtaking level of moral certitude. As a state senator, his one-man crusade against students screening X-rated movies at the University of Maryland College Park five years ago included an unsuccessful effort to tie state funding to the development of a college “porn policy.”
In Annapolis, however, Dr. Harris was mostly a preening pest who made sanctimonious speeches on the Senate floor that annoyed even his GOP colleagues. In Washington, he’s among enough like-minded right-wing zealots to cause real trouble. Those who make their living in the tourist trade on the Eastern Shore are just collateral damage, victims of a congressman’s runaway ego. The self-serving amendment is likely to be tossed out by the Democratically-controlled Senate; a cure for the district’s bigger problems can only be achieved by its voters in November.