Lawmakers introduce bill to legalize marijuana

Delaware State News | by Matt Bittle

DOVER — Lawmakers on Thursday filed a bill that would make Delaware the ninth state to legalize marijuana.

The measure, sponsored by 13 Democrats and one Republican, would allow individuals at least 21 years old to use cannabis in their home. Using marijuana in public would still be illegal, and individuals would be restricted from growing the drug or possessing more than one ounce.

“Reefer madness. We should never have agreed to allow that image to be prolonged to that extent. That’s ridiculous,” Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, said at a news conference, accompanied by cannabis advocates.

“And it should be proven ridiculous by the legalization of marijuana. When we can sit there, look everybody in the eye and say we legalized alcohol, which is much more addictive, much more damaging, physically damaging, than marijuana, then we are sort of barking up the wrong tree.”

Supporters say the bill will end a “prohibition” that results in many people, especially minorities, being sentenced to jail for nonviolent crimes. Legalizing cannabis, they say, could also bring in millions of dollars and create jobs.

But opponents counter allowing recreational use could lead some to harder drugs.

Gov. John Carney is among those who opposes legalization. A spokesman for the governor declined to comment on whether Gov. Carney, a Democrat, would veto the bill if he gets to him.

Attorney General Matt Denn also does not favor legalized marijuana.

What actions, if any, the new Trump administration may take remains up in the air, but the federal government could opt to reverse an Obama-era policy to not go after states that have legalized marijuana. The drug remains illegal at the federal level.

State support?

Delaware legalized medical marijuana in 2011 and decriminalized cannabis in 2015, steps that Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, said have not resulted in “any adverse effects.”

Under the bill, businesses could acquire a license to sell cannabis for $5,000, with a $10,000 renewal fee every two years. A tax of $50 per ounce would be placed on marijuana flowers, and all other parts of the plant would have a $15-per-ounce tax.

Twenty percent of revenue would go to the Department of Education, while 30 percent would go to Department of Health and Social Services to be divided evenly between drug-abuse prevention programs, public-education initiatives and helping communities “that have been disproportionally affected by past federal and state marijuana prohibition policies,” according to the bill.

The bill models the state’s laws on alcohol, creating a Division of Marijuana Control and Enforcement and placing some limitations on selling the drug at certain times and on select days.

Public attitudes on marijuana have changed greatly over the years: 60 percent of respondents to a 2016 Gallup survey reported support for legalization, up from 25 percent in 1995.

Locally, an October poll from the University of Delaware said 61 percent of Delaware voters support legalizing the drug.

Chief Defender Brendan O’Neill said the bill would make the state’s criminal justice system better and more efficient, and Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, called Thursday a “long-awaited day.”

“I know one of the concerns that I often hear is this is a gateway. This is only a gateway if we force the people who use marijuana to go to the same people who are pushing illegal drugs,” Rep. Baumbach said.

“If we bring this out to the light of day, not only do we prevent the people who use marijuana from speaking to the people who are selling drugs but we also are bringing all the producers of marijuana into the system, helping our Department of Education, Health and Social Services, helping with law enforcement and helping the general funds.”

Decriminalization passed on party lines in 2015, and even if every Democrat supports legalization the bill would still need several Republican votes: Because it would create new penalties dealing with the Court of Common Pleas and Justice of the Peace Courts, the measure requires two-thirds’ support to pass.

House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, said he thinks some members of his caucus may consider voting for it, although he is skeptical of how much money the state could bring in from marijuana.

But advocates are confident the proposal receive support from the General Assembly.

“I think society as a whole understands that a lot of people at the end of the day instead of going home and having a glass of wine go home and enjoy marijuana. And it’s just the reality,” Rep. Keeley said.

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