Delaware House panel advances bill to legalize marijuana

Rep. Lyndon Yearick (R) Camden speaks against HB110 during the marijuana legalization bill at Legislative Hall on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — A House committee on Wednesday voted 9-2 to release for floor debate a bill that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Delaware.

House Bill 110 would allow individuals at least 21 years old to buy the drug from specialized shops.

If the bill becomes law it would make Delaware the ninth state in the nation with legal cannabis.

The bill, debated by the House Revenue and Finance Committee on Wednesday, proposes that businesses could acquire a license for $5,000 to sell the drug 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.

The number of dispensaries would be limited to 75 unless more are needed due to high demand.

Delaware residents wouldn’t be allowed to grow their own plants — unlike most of the states with legal marijuana.

Under terms of the bill, 20 percent of revenue would go to the state’s Department of Education; 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.

Zoe Patchell, the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network executive director, supports HB110 during the marijuana legalization bill at Legislative Hall on Wednesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Main sponsor Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, said a conservative estimate shows the bill could bring in up to $25 million to the state in the first full fiscal year.

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.

Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, said in a statement he wants to “wait and see how Delaware’s decriminalization law continues to be implemented, and monitor progress in other states, before taking any additional steps.”

His view had been characterized before as opposition, but Rep. Keeley said she believes the governor has not expressly opposed the bill.

Regardless, the measure faces a major obstacle in the supermajority required in each chamber. Because the bill would create new crimes relating to the Court of Common Pleas and Justice of the Peace Court, it needs 28 representatives and 14 senators to pass.

Advocates have mobilized to press lawmakers to support the bill, but they must contend not only with hostile legislators but with a coalition of organizations including the Delaware State Troopers Association, Delaware Chamber of Commerce and AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Supporters of the bill claim legalization would greatly scale back what they called the expensive and ineffective war on drugs. They claim marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol and should be available for recreational use.

Zoe Patchell, a member of the Delaware chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, compared restrictions on marijuana to the U.S. 18th Amendment to the Constitution — Prohibition — which banned the manufacture, transport and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.

“This costly policy has still had no effect on reducing the supply or demand,” she said.

But opponents counter that legalization can lead to greater availability among teenagers and children, could cause more impaired driving and will not put a sizable dent in the illegal drug market. They also say more research is needed to determine the effects of the drug.

“Let’s not just jump into marijuana legalization in Delaware, inviting a possible epidemic of unforeseen consequences for all citizens, especially children,” Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Camden, said.

Scott Spencer took a similar stance, raising concerns that legalization could chase companies away from Delaware and lead to increased spending by the state.

“I have not heard in this legislation: What are the costs we’re going to have to spend upfront?” he asked.

Several people expressed worries the bill, if it became law, could increase crime and pose a public health risk.

James Spadola, who ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 2016 as a Republican, took exception to those claims.

“People die because marijuana is still traded on the black market,” he said.

Other supporters pointed to marijuana’s medicinal effects and the revenue the state government would take in from legalizing the drug as arguments for passing the bill.

According to an October poll from the University of Delaware, 61 percent of Delaware voters supposedly support legalizing the drug.

Delaware created a medical marijuana law in 2011, although it took several years to open the first dispensary. The General Assembly decriminalized cannabis — the plant from which marijuana is derived — in 2015.

About 100 people were gathered in the House chamber for Wednesday’s hearing, with a few of the attendees wearing pins shaped like cannabis leaves.

Thirty-four people spoke, evenly split between supporters and opponents. Several of the listeners in the chamber broke out into applause after the bill was passed out of committee.

Reps. Stephanie T. Bolden, D-Wilmington, and Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, voted to send the bill to the floor even though they both expressed unease about supporting it before the full chamber.

Rep. Keeley said she will continue to meet with the governor and lawmakers in an effort to gain their support and have a House vote before lawmakers break for the year on June 30.

“Those individuals that have concerns, that are still on the fence, that’s my job to convince them,” she said after the hearing. “But right now, I feel pretty confident that the bill has the votes to pass the House.”

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