Marijuana task force eyes potential problems in legalization

John Carney

DOVER — This time next year, Delaware could be the ninth state with legal marijuana and just the third east of the Mississippi River.

But the main sponsor of a bill that would let individuals use cannabis recreationally wants the First State to do it right.

Other states legalized marijuana “backward,” approving recreational use and then working out the specifics, Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, said.

To prevent that, lawmakers created a panel to examine potential obstacles that might arise after legalizing marijuana.

That group, the Adult Use Cannabis Task Force, held its second meeting Wednesday, and attendees heard from state officials and cannabis advocates on a variety of things that could create problems if marijuana is legalized.

House Bill 110 would allow adults to buy cannabis and marijuana-infused edibles from specialized shops. Businesses would require a license to sell marijuana, which they could obtain it from the state for $5,000 with a $10,000 renewal fee every two years. There would be no more than 40 stores unless more are needed due to high demand.

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.

Gov. John Carney has expressed opposition in the past, but Rep. Keeley said she believes he is open to signing the proposal. A spokesman for the governor said in an email Gov. Carney “believes Delaware should continue to learn from other states before taking any additional steps, and looks forward to the findings of the task force.”

Rep. Keeley feels “momentum’s growing” for the bill, which is currently awaiting a vote on the House floor.

According to an October poll from the University of Delaware, 61 percent of Delaware voters support legalizing the drug.

Cannabis advocate Tom Donovan said the state would be putting a halt to “prohibition” by legalizing the drug.

“We’re doing a good thing by ending a bad policy,” he said.

But some Delawareans are worried legalization could lead to children using the drug, more car accidents and higher rates of addiction.

Tim Holly, representing the Delaware Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses are concerned about their ability to discipline employees who use cannabis if the drug is legalized.

“Such a burden should not be forced upon employers,” he said.

Workers who are injured or fired because of marijuana use should not be able to collect workers’ compensation or unemployment, he said.

Afterward, Rep. Keeley agreed companies should be able to have terminate employees who use the drug even if it is legal, noting businesses have the right to instruct workers not to drink alcohol even when off the clock.

“If the employer has a zero-tolerance policy that’s the way it is,” she said.

Packaging of marijuana products may not be the first thing to come to mind when thinking about issues around marijuana legalization, but several people at the meeting said the law must include strict instructions about exactly how products are wrapped and stored.

Cannabis should be sold in child-proof bags or containers, like pills, and should be clearly labeled with a variety of information, Jamie Mack with the Division of Public Health said.

Some states have placed restrictions around edibles, such as what shapes they can be sold in, to lower the likelihood a child thinks such a substance is candy.

Food safety concerns also come into play for edibles, as do THC concentration and serving size, Mr. Mack said.

“Given that this is a new market we feel it’s better to start simple and allow ourselves to expand later,” he said.

John Yeomans, director of Delaware Alcohol & Tobacco Enforcement, had a similar stance, advocating for training requirements for all employees of marijuana sellers, setting a strict limit on the number of licenses to be issued and adopting strong security measures for dispensaries.

The bill uses the same “three-tiered” system used the state for alcohol, where a manufacturer sells to a wholesaler, a wholesaler sells to a retailer and a retailer sells to a customer.

State law requires manufacturers to offer the same price to all wholesalers, and retailers cannot offer alcohol at a lower price than what they paid.

House Bill 110 has a passionate group of supporters working to persuade lawmakers, but there are also plenty of opponents, ranging from the transportation lobbying group AAA to average citizens.

William Lynch of atTAcK addiction noted Wednesday the country is in the midst of a drug “crisis” and repeated the common claim that cannabis is a “gateway drug.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has noted many people who take hard drugs started with marijuana. However, it has also determined most cannabis users do not go on to other substances, and it concluded more research is needed on whether marijuana makes people more likely to move to other drugs.

According to the institute, “30 percent of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder,” although it notes dependence is not the same thing as addiction.

The Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area reported the number of traffic deaths in Colorado increased from 481 in 2013, the last year before marijuana legalization went into effect, to 547 in 2015, while the number of drivers who tested positive for the drug jumped from 63 to 105 over the same period.

At the task force meeting, Jack Guerin expressed concern over what legalization might do to the state’s medical marijuana program, which saw more than 3,200 applications from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017.

But others defended the drug: Rich Jester called it “the most nontoxic, well-tolerated drug in existence,” and Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network President Zoë Patchell noted there are no recorded instances of anyone fatally overdosing on marijuana.

Delaware budget officials are currently working to determine what costs and revenue might be generated by the bill.

Rep. Keeley previously claimed the bill could bring in at least $25 million. In July, the first month marijuana was legal in Nevada, the state reported $27.1 million of revenue from the drug.

The Adult Use Cannabis Task Force’s report is due to the governor and the General Assembly Jan. 31 but Rep. Keeley said Wednesday the final date might be pushed back to March.

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