Delaware bill to legalize marijuana released from committee; full vote expected in about a month

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DOVER — A measure to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Delaware was released from a House committee Wednesday, the next step in the long process toward what advocates hope will be a historic occasion.

After three hours of discussion and public testimony, the House Health & Human Development Committee approved the bill. It will likely be heard by the full House in late April or early May, per the main sponsor.

House Bill 150 would let individuals age 21 and older buy up to 1 ounce of marijuana from licensed retail stores. The legislation would establish a 15% tax, though retailers would otherwise be able to set their own prices.

Delawareans would not be allowed to grow their own cannabis.

Using marijuana in public or a vehicle would remain against the law, and employers would still be able to make their own policies prohibiting usage. Additionally, municipalities could pass ordinances preventing marijuana facilities from operating within their borders.

The state’s medical marijuana program would remain unchanged.

Almost four dozen people spoke Wednesday, with a majority expressing support. Some of those who did oppose the bill said they are in favor of the concept but have specific concerns about how it might impact the medical program or other issues.

Backers are confident the proposal would deal a grievous blow to the black market and allow adults to use a substance they say should have never been outlawed in the first place.

“Delaware doesn’t exist in a bubble, and it’s just impractical, illogical and fiscally irresponsible at this point to think that cannabis prohibition will ever eliminate cannabis from Delaware,” Zoe Patchell, president of the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network, told lawmakers.

The measure would regulate marijuana like alcohol, creating a separate Office of Marijuana Control and commissioner position under the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement.

Up to 30 retail licenses would be issued within 16 months of the bill’s effective date, with applicants selected based on a series of criteria, including the wages paid to employees and the diversity of the workforce. There would be separate licenses for other stages of the process, like growing and distributing marijuana.

The initial licenses would fall into three categories: open competition, social equity and microbusiness.

The social equity licenses would be reserved for individuals who live in areas “disproportionately impacted” by marijuana prohibition. Those specific locations would be selected by the Delaware marijuana commissioner, who would be appointed by the governor, based on areas “that have high rates of arrest, conviction, and incarceration relating to the sale, possession, use, cultivation, manufacture, or transport of marijuana.”

Licenses would also be set aside for people who were convicted of a marijuana-related crime or are closely related to someone convicted of such an offense.

Microbusiness licenses would give priority to local small businesses, effectively mimicking the microbrewery model, so as to prevent “Big Marijuana” from dominating the industry.

Revenue would be sent to the state’s general fund rather than being reserved for specific programs or entitlements, though it’s unclear how much money legalization might bring in.

Numerous speakers Wednesday told stories of how they or members of their family were helped by cannabis, with several contrasting it to alcohol and opioids.

“There is no just cause or reason why this plant remains a Schedule I drug” at the federal level, said Jacqueline Seifred, who relayed a tale of how cannabis helped her son overcome his opioid addiction.

Mark Jacobs agreed with main sponsor Rep. Ed Osienski, a Newark Democrat, that many people would be willing to pay more for a legal, regulated product rather than going through the black market.

But others raised concerns the bill will have unintended consequences, such as increased rates of traffic accidents, people showing up to work high, more product for the black market and more youth using the drug and damaging their growing brains in the process.

Several speakers who either have medical marijuana cards or work in the industry protested that the bill would harm the state’s medical cannabis program, as has happened in some states that have approved legalization.

Representatives from multiple state agencies cited a few changes they would like. Rep. Osienski, who spent months working to craft a measure with broad appeal, has said he is open to compromise.

Most of the Republicans on the committee expressed worries about negative impacts on society, with Rep. Rich Collins noting the sheer length and complexity of the 49-page proposal, as well as the fact it was filed just last week.

“Most of our bills are relatively short and easy to understand,” the Millsboro Republican said. “This is anything but.”

Public safety was a chief concern for some, including members of law enforcement.

“The bottom line for us comes down to public safety. The passing of HB 150 does nothing to improve public safety in the state of Delaware,” Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council Executive Director Jeffrey Horvath testified. “In fact, it diminishes public safety in the state of Delaware.”

AAA’s Ken Grant sounded a similar note, telling the committee that while there is a test to determine if a person has consumed marijuana, it doesn’t indicate whether the individual did so days or minutes ago.

Sam Chick said he supports legalization but does not like the bill, believing it will lead to “cartels” dominating the industry. He also objected to the limited number of licenses and the fact that the bill lacks home-grow provisions.

“It’s not legal if you can’t grow it,” Mr. Chick said.

There were conflicting claims on what data shows about legalization’s impact on car crashes and teen usage in other states, but it was clear a philosophical divide existed between many of the participants.

Supporters of the bill touted it as a social justice measure, noting the unequal application of anti-drug laws. Rep. Eric Morrison, a Glasgow Democrat, provided a brief history lesson, informing listeners of the racist crusade led by Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, against cannabis in the 1930s. Later, the administration of President Richard Nixon launched a war against drugs in the 1960s and ‘70s, at least partially due to a desire to crush political opponents, “the anti-war left and Black people,” as domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman admitted years later.

A 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report found that Blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than their White counterparts are, even though the two groups are about as likely to use the drug.

“In states like Delaware, cannabis is one of the No. 1 gateway drugs into the criminal justice system,” Iskeisha Stuckey said.

Public attitudes toward the drug have changed dramatically in recent years: A Gallup poll conducted in the fall reported that 68% of Americans are in favor of legalization, double the percentage from 2003. Democrats and independents in particular are strong supporters of the concept.

A 2018 survey from the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication found that 61% of residents here back legalization.

Gov. John Carney does not support legal weed, but backers believe he would not veto the proposal if it reaches his desk. The main sponsors said last week they think they have the necessary votes (25 in the House and 13 in the Senate) for passage.

Fourteen states plus the nation’s capital have legalized marijuana. In response to pushback about the bill crippling the black market, Rep. Osienski cited another period of American history: Prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, alcohol was outlawed in the United States, yet many people — including prominent politicians — continued to use it, and bootleggers like Al Capone profited.

“Yes, you can still buy moonshine, but is it thriving?” Rep. Osienski asked. “No.”