Is legal pot good or bad? Depends who you ask

DOVER — If marijuana is legalized, the chairman of the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council believes users of the drug should be required to have a special driver’s license that would prohibit them from buying a firearm.

William Bryson, the chief of the Camden Police Department, made the comment at a Wednesday meeting of a task force looking at the issues around cannabis legalization.

House Bill 110, introduced in March and currently awaiting a vote on the House floor, would allow adults to buy cannabis and marijuana-infused edibles from specialized shops.

Unlike most of the states with legal marijuana, Delaware would not allow residents to grow their own plants.

The state’s medical marijuana program would not be changed by the bill.

Delaware decriminalized the drug in 2015, meaning anyone over 21 found with no more than 1 ounce of weed simply pays a $100 fine and hands over their marijuana.

Wednesday was the fourth meeting of the marijuana task force, which will issue a report to Gov. John Carney and the General Assembly in February. Where previous gatherings had specific themes, such as issues around banking, the most recent one offered a broad look at the potential pros and cons of legalized weed.

Supporters see legalization as bringing a much-needed end to marijuana “prohibition” and claim it will lower racial disparities in the criminal justice system and bring in tax revenue.

But opponents say the measure will result in more car accidents and children using the drug and will not eliminate the (untaxed) black market.

While eight states have legalized marijuana, it remains a Schedule I drug, meaning the federal government considers it to have “a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence.”

Chief Bryson noted anyone who uses cannabis is technically prohibited by the federal government from having a firearm. To that end he suggested creating an indication on Delaware driver’s licenses to allow state residents to buy marijuana while preventing them from purchasing a gun.

AAA Mid-Atlantic, which has been among the leading opponents, testified that legalization will prove harmful.

“Our main takeaway message from this today is to pause,” said Cathey Rossi, vice president of Public & Government Affairs for the organization. “It’s about public safety.”

But the chief of the Office of Defense Services encouraged the committee to recommend passage, saying it would free up the caseload for already-overworked public defenders and benefit society in the long run.

“Do we want to have laws that people aren’t following, and that’s what we have now, and that breeds disrespect for all laws,” Brendan O’Neill said.

Cannabis advocate Tom Donovan argued allowing people to use the drug will reduce inequities in the criminal justice system. A 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report found black Americans are about as likely to use marijuana as their white counterparts but are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession of the drug.

Legalization, Mr. Donovan claimed, will also lead to fewer deaths from opioid abuse which claimed the lives of more than 33,000 people in the United States in 2016. Studies have indicated opioid overdoses are rarer in states with medical marijuana, and a recent analysis in the American Journal of Public Health indicated the same might hold true for recreational-use states.

“When we’re talking about the law, criminal law, we cannot be in a vacuum, we cannot discount what’s going on around us in this state, this country,” Mr. Donovan said.

Making cannabis available for personal use would, however, pose issues for law enforcement, noted several police officers.

Chief Bryson said all but one of the 50 or so drug dogs in the state are trained to detect marijuana, meaning law enforcement would have to spend at least $1 million to train new dogs.

Tom Brackin, president of the Delaware State Troopers Association, agreed legalization would hinder police. Serious cases involving drug trafficking or illegal firearm ownership often start with police detecting marijuana. If cannabis is legal, law enforcement would potentially be unable to get some criminals off the street.

“What we’re doing here by legalizing marijuana is not only we’re taking a tool for law enforcement to impact violent crimes (but also) handing a tool to the bad guys,” Mr. Brackin said.

The Delaware Department of Justice shared similar views.

Gov. Carney, a Democrat, has expressed opposition to legalization in the past. But the main sponsor of the legislation has said she believes he is open to signing the proposal.

According to a 2016 poll from the University of Delaware, 61 percent of Delaware voters support legalization.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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