Marijuana advocates push for legalization in talk with governor

Gov. John Carney

WILMINGTON — A majority of Delawareans are in support of legalizing marijuana, according to one poll, but Gov. John Carney remains opposed.

About 100 people gathered Wednesday for a “roundtable discussion” on House Bill 110, a proposal that would regulate, tax and legalize cannabis, or marijuana.

The bill would make Delaware the ninth state to allow recreational marijuana usage, although public use and private plant-growing would be illegal.

A passionate crowd turned out at Delaware Technical Community College where more than a dozen advocates made their case for the bill and a few opponents argued against.

Nearly all of the speakers were pro-legalization, claiming it would make the criminal justice system more efficient, bring in millions of dollars in revenue and create jobs.

It’s also, in the eyes of many supporters, simply the right thing to do.

“Cannabis has been a lifesaver for me,” said Hector Ortiz, a cancer survivor who spoke positively of the drug’s impact. “It’s time that this plant, this natural, organic, pure plant, is set free. I support the legalization of cannabis because everyone should have the human right to use cannabis legally. We are not criminals unless the law makes us criminals.”

The roundtable was organized due to the frequent questions Gov. Carney, who has been meeting with Delaware residents for months to discuss the budget, has received about legalization.

While the governor, a Democrat, is not in support of legalization, he said he will consider hearing from citizens and weighing the evidence.

Asked afterward if anything could convince him to change his view, Gov. Carney said he would keep “an open mind.”

“Generally, I think we should take it slowly and learn from other states,” he said.

He said he had recently spoke to the governors of Colorado and Washington, two of the nine states with legal cannabis.

House Bill 110 would allow businesses to acquire a license 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. The revenue would 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.

An October poll from the University of Delaware claimed 61 percent of Delaware voters support legalization.

While most of the speakers at Wednesday’s event were strong supporters of the measure, a few did voice opposition.

“I’m asking you to put the brakes on this a little bit,” Bruce Lorenz said.

In response to claims by other attendees that legalization would greatly diminish the black market, Mr. Lorenz said such logic “flies in the face of capitalism as we know it.”

Still, participants spoke of ending the war on drugs, which several people compared to Prohibition.

“Someone is going to sell cannabis anyway, so let’s ensure that communities are not destroyed,” said Delaware NAACP President Linwood Jackson.

Mr. Jackson and Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, a Wilmington Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the bill, claimed the proposal will help reduce racial injustice.

Blacks have disproportionately suffered from the federal crackdown on drugs over the past four-plus decades, Mr. Jackson argued, saying black men are arrested for possession more often than whites.

Speakers also claimed cannabis is safer than alcohol.

“There’s never been a single documented case in human history of an overdose death caused by marijuana,” said Maggie Ellinger-Locke, a member of the Marijuana Policy Project.

Zoe Patchell, chair of the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network board, said cannabis consumers are “asking to be taxed,” leading Gov. Carney to remark, “That doesn’t happen too often.”

In response to one man’s questioning, the governor promised at the roundtable to hold another meeting for opponents of legalization — evidence that, despite the apparent strong support from many Delawareans, other people have concerns.

Gov. Carney has spoken on unintended consequences arising from legalization in other states, and legislators are divided.

Meanwhile, some lobbying organizations are opposed. AAA Mid-Atlantic, for instance, has argued more time is needed to see how things develop in states with recreational marijuana.

House Bill 110 would bring in millions of dollars in revenue, supporters say, although main sponsor Rep. Helene Keeley, a Wilmington Democrat, called the additional money “a side effect.”

The main purpose, she said, is to legalize a drug that does little harm.

“Someone’s going to sell it, governor,” Mr. Ortiz said. “I’d rather it be the state of Delaware.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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