DOVER — Advocates were shocked by the results of the Delaware House of Representatives’ vote for recreational cannabis legalization last week. Although the legislation received a majority approval, the tally was two votes short of the three-fifths required to pass.
The local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws released a statement Monday stating that it seemed like the bill was set to pass since Delaware’s Senate and House leadership rarely bring bills that don’t pass.
But several representatives who voted “no” or abstained from voting have come under fire for defying the will of the majority of Delawareans, 61% of whom are in favor of the bill, according to a 2018 University of Delaware study.
Zoë Patchell, executive director of Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network, said last-minute amendments were unfair and should have been introduced when the bill was still in committee.
“We already have a simple majority of the legislature that supports cannabis legalization and philosophically, we have a supermajority of bipartisan members of the House that also support cannabis legalization,” Ms. Patchell said.
“But what it’s coming down to is the details of how to legalize the market and create the industry. So it’s being held up by these business interests that have absolutely nothing to do with the harms of prohibition and the human cost.”
Ahead of the vote, the House met for more than two hours in a private caucus over the cannabis bill, what the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network called “an ominous sign.”
Legislators emerged with seven amendments introduced by Rep. Michael Smith, R-Pike Creek). They would have added felony convictions for violations of the Controlled Substances Act, felony criminal convictions for violations of the Tax Code, and prohibit those with Tier 2 or Tier 3 quantity convictions from applying for a Social Equity license. Prime sponsor of HB305, Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark, called these amendments “unfriendly.”
During the voting, Rep. Smith said he’d indicated to his peers and advocates that he would vote “yes,” but because of what he called a lack of bipartisanship on the last-minute amendments, he decided to vote “no” instead. However, Rep. Smith was not the author of the amendments, according to Ms. Patchell – Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, is.
“This was a comprehensive bill with such high stakes. We’ve had overwhelming public support and there’s even been a simple majority vote in the House twice,” Ms. Patchell said in a statement Monday morning.
“Now, with the clear prospect for people to cash in big on the industry, the legislation has failed to pass. The bill was defeated after suspicious amendments were introduced that would restrict eligibility for entry into this lucrative industry. Those amendments were authored by a House member who recused himself from voting over a conflict of interest.”
She added that many cannabis advocacy groups engaged in conversations with Rep. Spiegelman about the amendments he was writing and voiced vehement opposition to them, but to no avail.
Rep. Spiegelman shared a statement on his Facebook page just after the bill was voted down, revealing that he had consulted with two attorneys who advised him not to vote on the matter due to a professional conflict of interest that he did not reveal.
He declined to comment any further on the matter when contacted Monday.
Rep. Spiegelman has sponsored several other amendments to previous marijuana bills relating to business practices. HA 3 to HB150, introduced in last year’s General Assembly, would have altered language regarding small businesses promoting diversity, added requirements to the list of “best practices” and to the criteria for the competitive scoring process for all license types, revised language regarding an applicant’s plans for operations, training, and staffing, and altered the criteria for the competitive scoring process for open license types.
“Ironically, much of America’s cannabis industry calls Delaware their corporate home,” a statement from Delaware NORML said. “The largest of the multi-state operators, like CuraLeaf and Columbia Care, already enjoy the First State’s friendly business laws and protections afforded by the Chancery Court. And while billions in regulated cannabis profits from other states finds shelter in Delaware, locals are still living with prohibition.”
“A significant number of otherwise law-abiding individuals are going to continue to be harassed and potentially arrested and put through the criminal justice system because of the legislature’s failure to act,” Ms. Patchell said.
Two other Democrats, Rep. Stephanie Bolden, D-Wilmington, and Rep. Bill Bush, D-Dover, abstained from voting. Neither them nor Rep. Smith could be reached for comment Monday.
“If you want to see a neighborhood that has suffered under prohibition, just visit mine, right here in Wilmington,” said Cynthia Ferguson, Delaware NORML’s founder and one of Rep. Bolden’s constituents.
“The residents of Browntown should not be treated like criminals for merely choosing a substance that is safer than alcohol. More than 18% of Delawareans consume cannabis … We are doing something that’s completely legal in New Jersey and New York. I find it unconscionable that just a few votes will keep people in prison for a plant.”
Ms. Ferguson, Ms. Patchell and over a dozen other advocates traveled to Dover on Thursday in anticipation of a successful vote.
“We thought that this was going to be a day that we were going to finally get some progress on the measure that we’ve been working on for nine years,” Ms. Patchell said.
“This is the fourth version of the cannabis legalization bill that’s been introduced and considered over the last six years. So we thought we had finally figured out the many different moving parts that would allow us to overcome the supermajority vote hurdle.”
Rep. Osienski has not revealed any further steps to draft new legislation.