Osienski: Banning safe, legal marijuana businesses is ineffective and shortsighted


Elected to the General Assembly in 2010, Rep. Ed Osienski, a Democrat, represents the Brookside and Newark areas. He was born in Delaware, and he and his family have lived in the community for 35 years.

After the General Assembly legalized adult recreational marijuana in the spring, many Delawareans approached me to express their gratitude that they will finally have easy, dependable and legal access to safe marijuana, including people I would never have expected. As noted at a Seaford City Council meeting this month, more than 850 potential adult-use marijuana consumers have sought to purchase recreational marijuana from the medical dispensary in that city since the bills were enacted in April. It’s like people are finally comfortable to admit they like using marijuana and are happy they won’t have to break the law to do so.

Recently, we’ve seen a run of municipalities banning marijuana businesses from operating in their town/city limits — the majority of them located in Sussex County — before the new marijuana control commissioner can even set up regulations for this new market.

That, coupled with the possibility of counties restricting locations and operations of this new industry, leaves me afraid many Delawareans may be tempted back to breaking the law because it may be easier to cross state lines to buy cannabis in the now-thriving market in nearby Maryland or from someone selling an unregulated and untested illegal product.

The new law does allow municipalities to ban and counties to regulate the marijuana businesses. However, I truly expected that, once the prohibition was removed, these business-friendly community leaders would simply regulate it, not completely ban it.

I am hearing that the ones that don’t outright ban marijuana businesses are considering strictly regulating it to poorly lit industrial parks away from easily accessible retail districts, where you’re sure to find a liquor store to buy a bottle of vodka and a pack of cigarettes. Local governments that seek to address the lingering impacts of the illegal black market would be best served by treating legalized marijuana with regulations and limitations similar to the other products only available for purchase by adult consumers over age 21 — alcohol and tobacco.

Municipal leaders are basing their rushed decisions on the false pretense that it will keep marijuana out of their town/city limits and establish “dry towns.” However, history shows that this approach does not work. They will be opting out of creating local jobs and collecting local business license fees and property taxes.

Despite a six-year debate that included a task force, opponents have accused me of moving too quickly in passing marijuana legalization. However, in a matter of months, several towns have moved swiftly to ban now-legal marijuana businesses from operating in their limits with very little public input and despite overwhelming public support for legalization. Oftentimes, these local officials are using many of the same disproven arguments that were trotted out against our bills to back up their decisions.

The only reason I can come up with why supposedly business-friendly towns are banning these businesses is because they can’t tax the sale of marijuana themselves. However, they also can’t tax alcohol or cigarettes, so that doesn’t make sense.

But towns will reap a benefit from the sale of marijuana. A portion of the state tax revenue we collect will go to the Justice Reinvestment Fund, which will aid any area in the state that has been negatively affected by the prohibition of marijuana. The rest of the revenue will go to bolstering the state’s general fund, which often funnels down to towns and cities in the form of grants-in-aid, Community Reinvestment Funds, Payment in Lieu of Taxes funds and Delaware Site Readiness Funds.

Perhaps if towns opt out of being part of the legal adult recreational marijuana market, they should also be prevented from reaping the financial benefits through the Justice Reinvestment Fund or increased contributions through the budget process. It’s not fair for some cities to claim the moral high ground but receive funds from the marijuana tax.

Towns should simply incorporate the regulated marijuana industry into their existing zoning with provisions that are no more onerous than zoning for alcohol business. Legal marijuana regulation works: It helps drive illegal dealers out of business and gives minors fewer opportunities to access illicit cannabis; it includes robust underage-use and prevention provisions; it protects public health by keeping tainted products out of circulation; and it allows law-abiding adults to abide by the law.

Doing this will create a variety of new jobs in a variety of fields like cultivation, product manufacturing, laboratory testing and retail. Marijuana business are required to submit a social responsibility plan along with their application, which must outline the percent of employees the business plans to hire from within the respective city or region. This ensures that local residents and municipalities will directly benefit from employment opportunities created by these businesses operating within town limits.

Local regulation, not prohibition, is the best way to handle the marijuana industry. I hope these towns reconsider their rushed actions and make smart, prudent decisions on behalf of their residents and for their towns’ futures.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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