House to take up marijuana legalization bill

DOVER — Is it time for Delawareans to be able to buy marijuana in public?

If so, should residents be able to grow their own pot?

Or, is the whole thing a fool’s errand that would just cause new problems, such as more people becoming addicted to heroin?

Whatever the case, legislators will have to decide where they stand: A bill to legalize marijuana is now before the full House of Representatives.

The House Revenue & Finance Committee released to the chamber Wednesday House Bill 110, a measure that would make Delaware the 11th state with legal marijuana.

Under the bill, individuals 21 or older would be able to buy cannabis and cannabis-infused products from special shops. But, unlike the other 10 states with legal marijuana, Delaware authorities 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. A similar legalization bill that failed in the House last year 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 and saw the first dispensary open in 2015.

Although the General Assembly breaks for the year at the end of the month, 2019 is just the first leg of the two-year session, meaning supporters can use the summer and fall to work with opponents and pick up votes. And make no mistake, they will need every vote they can get: Because it establishes new taxes, the legislation needs a three-fifths supermajority, or 25 votes instead of 21, to pass.

The main sponsor said after the committee hearing he is not sure how many votes he has right now but is hopeful the bill will make it to the Senate.

“If they listen to their constituents, I feel like I will get the votes and we could move this forward,” Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark, said.

The pros of legalization
Wednesday’s committee meeting lasted two hours, with nearly 40 people speaking. A majority of the members of the public who provided testimony expressed support for the legislation, and many attendees wore either marijuana leaf lapel pins or buttons stating their support of House Bill 110.

“Having spent 35 years on the front lines in the war on drugs, I can honestly tell that you we’re losing,” Gordon McAllister, a former judge in Oklahoma, said. “I’ve seen too many young lives ruined not by marijuana or drugs but by the draconian punishments we put on them. We need to be smart on drugs, not tough.”

Backers argued the War on Drugs has not stopped people from using illegal substances but has simply allowed the black market to thrive and resulted in many Americans, especially minorities, being harshly punished by the criminal justice system.

The measure would allow the state to issue up to 15 retail licenses 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. Dispensaries could also peddle pot to adults hoping to use it recreationally without a license but only if there is sufficient supply.

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

Unintended consequences
But for some, no number of protections is enough.

Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health, said legalization would only worsen the state’s mental health and opioid crises, and Ken Grant with AAA noted there’s no quick roadside test to determine impairment like with alcohol. Other concerns came from business owners or representatives, who expressed concerns more employees would show up to work high.

“Would you feel safe putting your child or a grandchild (on a ride) when an operator that is running the ride has smoked marijuana previous to that?” asked Bill Henschke, who operates Rehoboth Beach’s Funland.

Groups like the Delaware State Troopers Association, AAA and the Chamber of Commerce are opposed to the bill.

Although nearly all the support in the General Assembly comes from Democrats, one particularly notable member of the party is not among them.

Gov. John Carney, according to a spokesman, still has questions about legalization and “believes we should continue to monitor progress in other states that have legalized.”

Lawmakers debated a similar proposal last year, but it ultimately fell short of passage.

While backers describe cannabis as a cash crop, it’s unclear how much money this bill might bring in. The measure discussed in 2018 had an estimate ranging from $9 million to $50 million, although supporters caution the new 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.

While 10 states allow recreational pot usage, only one approved legalization through its legislature rather than a ballot initiative.

Illinois is poised to join that list, with the state General Assembly passing a legalization bill this week. The measure is now before Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who said while running for office last year he supported legal cannabis.

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, forcing said businesses to deal almost entirely in cash.

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

Despite continued opposition from Washington D.C., a Gallup poll from October reported 66 percent of Americans back legalization.

In the First State, the public also appears to be in favor. Sixty-one percent of respondents in a September survey from the University of Delaware expressed support for legal weed, the same figure as in a similar poll two years earlier.

Delaware decriminalized pot in 2015, making possession of no more than 1 ounce of the drug a civil offense carrying with it a $100 fine.

For and against
On Wednesday, supporters pushed back against claims marijuana usage often leads to harder drugs like heroin.

“We are indeed concerned about this being a gateway. The way to shut down a gateway is to shut down the doors between marijuana use and hard drugs,” Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, said. “House Bill 110 addresses that. Doing nothing does not address that.

“I think also there’s arguments that I’ve heard that don’t make sense, and it’s because they’ll say: ‘Well, you know what, this will make our roads less safe.’ That would be the case if we were introducing marijuana.

“Hello, marijuana is here. The question is, are we going to regulate it?”

Others sought to refute arguments that pot is addictive and legalization will lead to more impaired driving, and several people told lawmakers the bill would help eliminate a strong inequity in the legal system.

“Nowhere in the state or in this country is the racial, social and economic injustice more prevalent than in the criminal justice system,” Tom Donovan said. “We know that blacks are three times more likely to be arrested for possessing cannabis than whites even though blacks, whites, yellows, purples, greens, everyone buys, sells and consumes cannabis at the same rate.”

Attorney General Kathy Jennings, a Democrat, supports legalization. In a February memo she urged the staff of the Department of Justice to focus on “alternatives to prosecution for misdemeanor possession of marijuana or paraphernalia charges related to marijuana possession.”

On Wednesday, a few people spoke in support of legalization but against the bill itself. One of those individuals, Kim Petters, told the committee the clause allowing dispensaries to sell pot would hurt medical marijuana patients like herself.

“We cannot meet supply and demand” as is, she said.

Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, voted to send the bill out of committee but said afterward he would not support it without changes, such as language protecting employers. Rep. Osienski said he is willing to amend the bill as long as the intent of the legislation — wiping out the black market and creating jobs, according to Rep. Osienski — remains the same.

If Delaware is going to join Colorado, Massachusetts and the other states with legal weed, supporters will have to bridge divides like the one between Mark Thompson and Ruth Bertrand.

Mr. Thompson, the executive director of the Medical Society of Delaware, called legalization “unconscionable” — a sharp contrast to Ms. Bertrand, who told lawmakers “all of us can benefit from using cannabis in our daily lives.”

Whether the bill goes up in smoke or leads to Delawareans lighting up will only be known with time.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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