Marijuana legalization bill announced

Lisa B. Goodman, left, with Hamilton Goodman Partners Government & Public Strategies talks with Zoe Patchell of Delaware Cannabis Advocacy in front of a painting of first woman President Pro Tempore Vera Gilbride Davis at Legislative Hall on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Puff, puff… pass?

Legislation introduced Thursday would make Delaware the 11th state with recreational marijuana, enabling individuals 21 and older to legally get high by smoking or otherwise consuming the drug.

Lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted to legalize pot last General Assembly, but a vote in the House fell short in June. This measure shares the same number as the previous proposal — House Bill 110 — but contains numerous differences.

Under the bill, individuals would be able to buy cannabis and cannabis-infused products from special shops, although unlike the other 10 states with legal marijuana, Delaware would not allow individuals to grow their own weed. (Washington only allows homegrow for medical marijuana patients.)

Using pot in public or in a vehicle would remain against the law.

While the measure does not specify the price for marijuana, it would establish a 15 percent tax imposed at the point of sale. Last year’s bill would have taxed marijuana flowers at $50 per ounce, immature plants at $25 an ounce and all other parts at $15 per ounce.

The bill would not change the existing medical marijuana program, which was established in 2011. The first dispensary opened in 2015.

Dover home owner and supporter of HB 110 Lou Esposito stands in the halls at Legislative Hall on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“There is a market for safe and legal marijuana in Delaware, which will have numerous benefits for our state,” main sponsor Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark, said. “We would be establishing a new industry that would create good-paying jobs for Delawareans while striking a blow against the marijuana black market.

“There’s a tremendous amount of public support for legal, recreational marijuana, and what we are proposing is a measured, reasonable approach that addresses many of the concerns people have raised while providing a framework that will allow for a successful industry.”

The measure contains restrictions like child-resistant packaging and would limit consumers to purchasing 1 ounce at a time. It would also give municipalities the ability to block marijuana retailers or cultivation centers in their jurisdiction.

Much like alcohol, stores would only be able to sell marijuana between certain hours, and the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement would have oversight power.

Up to 15 retail licenses would be issued within 16 months of the effective date. A medical marijuana compassion center would be able to obtain a license to sell cannabis for recreational usage.

It’s unclear how much money the bill might bring in. The legislation debated last year had an estimate ranging from $9 million to $50 million, although supporters caution this proposal contains enough changes that the revenue level is difficult to project.

Money from the bill would go to a special fund that would first be used to cover all administrative costs. Once those are paid for, any funding left over would be subject to appropriation by the General Assembly.

Even if the drug is legalized, employers could still restrict their workers from using marijuana, a concern expressed in 2018 by a representative of the State Chamber of Commerce.

Landlords would be able to bar residents from smoking in their dwelling.

“I believe that legalization is inevitable,” Sen. Trey Paradee, D-Dover, said. “I believe the majority of Delawareans want to see this happen, and as I said last year on the floor during the debate for last year’s House Bill 110, I believe that if we had a referendum process this would have been done three or four years ago.”

Some supporters are hopeful the bill can shrink the black market and create hundreds of jobs, while others simply argue cannabis is far safer than alcohol.

Zoë Patchell, president of the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network, is optimistic about the bill’s chances. Though she would prefer it authorize Delawareans to grow their own cannabis, Ms. Patchell feels the measure is a “good foundation.”

But not everyone is on board.

Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, has repeatedly expressed skepticism about legalization, and a spokesman for the governor reiterated that Thursday.

“The Governor has talked to Delawareans across the state on both sides on this issue since taking office,” Jonathan Starkey wrote in a text message. “He does not believe we should move forward with legalization. There are still unanswered questions, and he believes we should continue to monitor progress in other states that have legalized.”

Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, opposes the bill because of marijuana’s potential as a “gateway drug,” saying he has seen too many lives ruined by pot and heard from too many constituents who are against legalization to support it.

James DeChene, a lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce, said a majority of chamber members who responded to a survey about legalization oppose it.

“Largely the same concerns that we had last time are contained in this bill, namely that the employer isn’t really protected at all from liability issues relating to the use of marijuana in the workplace,” he said. “We’ve long said that there’s no spot test for impairment, and the legislation has a definition of impairment this time, but it is almost impossible to prove.”

Many people have also raised concerns related to law enforcement. Some studies have indicated more drivers operate a car while high in states with legal weed, leading to increased crash frequency.

Tom Brackin, president of the Delaware State Troopers Association, echoed Mr. DeChene’s concerns about the inability to conduct a quick and accurate test for impairment while adding he fears legalization will lead to more teenagers and children using the drug.

Also complicating matters is Washington D.C. The federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug along with substances like heroin and ecstasy, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Because of that, banks are hesitant to enter into business with marijuana-related companies, meaning said businesses generally deal solely in cash.

The federal government backed off enforcement under President Barack Obama, but the Trump administration has rescinded those policies.

The prior General Assembly’s House Bill 110 received 21 votes in favor in the 41-member House but still fell short of the necessary threshold of 60 percent required to create a tax.

In order to hit three-fifths, the bill must receive support from 25 representatives and 13 senators.

But despite that high bar, supporters are hopeful. Aiding their cause is the fact the 150th General Assembly continues stretches into 2020, giving pro-pot lawmakers and advocates time to attempt to sway other senators and representatives.

Sixty-one percent of respondents in a September survey from the University of Delaware backed legal weed, the same figure as in a similar poll two years earlier. Delaware decriminalized pot in 2015.

Only one other state has legalized cannabis through its legislature rather than a ballot initiative.

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