Legal pot’s future still hazy here

DOVER — By the end of 2018, you might be able to legally buy marijuana at specialized stores in Delaware. But if that seems too good to be true, keep in mind that first, some hurdles probably have to be overcome.

House Bill 110, introduced in March, is set to be reconsidered soon. Legislators return next week, but before the bill receives a vote on the floor of the House, the final recommendations from a task force studying legalization will be issued.

That task force gathered Wednesday for the penultimate meeting. A report is currently supposed to be due to the General Assembly and Gov. John Carney by the end of the month, but lawmakers plan to extend the deadline next week to Feb. 28.

Wednesday’s meeting offered a look at what the final report will look like, with a legislative attorney offering an overview of concerns shared in past meetings and what changes could be made to the bill.

Despite opposition from the federal government, marijuana is becoming more and more acceptable across society. Cannabis is legal in eight states, and that list could expand soon: The governor-elect of New Jersey has promised to sign a legalization measure, meaning the Garden State could become the first East Coast state outside New England offering recreational marijuana.

Delaware’s bill would allow adults to buy weed from stores that would be issued licenses. Individuals could have up to 1 ounce of marijuana but would not be permitted to grow their own. Using marijuana in public would remain illegal.

The state’s medical marijuana program would see little change.

Delaware decriminalized pot in 2015, meaning anyone over 21 caught with no more than 1 ounce of the drug simply pays a $100 fine and forfeits the marijuana.

Supporters have called for legalizing a product some say is less harmful than alcohol, but opponents fear such an action would lead to teenagers and children using cannabis and an increase in impaired driving.

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

Wednesday, a representative from the Delaware Chamber of Commerce raised several concerns about the ability of businesses to discipline employees who use marijuana, even if it’s on their own time.

“Employers should specifically retain the ability to take adverse action for all issues relating to marijuana, no matter where it’s used or consumed,” said Tim Holly, the chair of the chamber’s Employer Advocacy & Education Committee.

He had previously expressed concerns about an employee who was fired for consuming cannabis collecting unemployment, something a legislative attorney said Wednesday would be prohibited by existing law.

Law enforcement officials have raised several issues in task force meetings, with William Bryson, the chief of the Camden Police Department, noting at the latest gathering House Bill 110 would cap the amount of legal marijuana that can be purchased at one time to 1 ounce but not limit the number of transactions.

“That’s the exact problem they’re having in Denver,” he said. “The businesses are selling to the same people six and seven times a day.”

Rep. Helene Keeley, a Wilmington Democrat who is the main sponsor of the bill, noted Delaware does not “restrict people from going in and buying fifths of liquor six, seven times a day” but agreed to consider a limit.

Rep. Keeley has maintained she wants to work out issues with legalization ahead of time, in contrast to some states like Colorado, which she has said legalized marijuana “backward” by addressing many of the problems afterward.

She plans to continue speaking with opponents, including law enforcement and the Delaware Chamber of Commerce, but admitted she may not be able to find a compromise all sides are happy with. She did not have a timetable for when the bill will be brought up on the floor.

“There is a lot of stuff we have to go through,” she said.

Asked her biggest concern with the bill and its potential side effects, Rep. Keeley pointed to impaired driving.

While law enforcement can test if someone has been drinking, it’s more difficult to determine if a driver is impacted by marijuana. The drug can stay in a person’s system for weeks, meaning someone who hasn’t used drugs in days could still fail a urine test.

Additionally, only about 10 police officers in the state are trained to detect drivers who are drunk or high, according to Rep. Keeley.

“We have to nail that down,” she said of combatting drugged driving.

Colorado and Washington, the first two states to legalize marijuana, saw car accidents increase after approving a 2012 ballot initiative. Combined, the number of accidents rose from 828 in 2011 to 1,022 in 2015, a 23 percent increase, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

Some individuals have raised concerns about firearms. At a prior meeting, Chief Bryson noted anyone who uses cannabis is technically prohibited by the federal government from having a firearm and suggested creating an indication on Delaware driver’s licenses to allow state residents to buy marijuana but not a gun.

Legislation introduced in June by Rep. Steve Smyk, a Milton Republican, addresses a related issue by ending a loophole created when the state decriminalized cannabis in 2015.

Even though possessing less than an ounce of weed is now a civil offense, it remains a felony to have both marijuana and a gun at the same time, something Superior Court Judge Paul Wallace noted in a 2017 decision can only be fixed by the Legislature.

Under the bill, it would be permissible for an adult to possess a firearm along with marijuana (which would still be subject to a civil penalty). The proposal has not been voted on but has bipartisan support.

Rep. Smyk, however, feels legalization may be a step too far for now.

“We have not proven that this is going to be a revenue that’s worth the risk,” he said, describing House Bill 110 as “dangerously close” to getting the needed support.

But others disagree about the value of allowing recreational weed use.

David Foster, who said he is a former undercover narcotics detective who has appeared before the Superior Court in drug cases, encouraged lawmakers to pass the bill.

“They alone can do what law enforcement hasn’t been able to do in 50 years, which is slash the black market,” he said.

Supporters have said legalization would not completely eliminate the black market but could put a serious dent in it while bringing in millions in tax revenue.

Rep. Keeley plans to make some changes to House Bill 110 through one amendment, while other alterations could be done as regulations, which do not have to be approved by the General Assembly.

The bill has 14 sponsors. Of those, 13 are Democrats.

Even if every Democrat votes for the proposal, it still may not be enough: Because the measure would create new penalties dealing with the Court of Common Pleas and Justice of the Peace Courts, it requires two-thirds’ support to pass.

Rep. Keeley said she may amend out that provision, leaving a three-fifths supermajority, which is required for all legislation that creates new taxes.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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