Senate approves legislation easing penalties for underage users of marijuana

DOVER — In 2015, lawmakers decriminalized marijuana, making possession of up to 1 ounce of pot a civil offense.

However, the measure only applies to adults, meaning 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds caught with the drug face an unclassified misdemeanor while individuals younger than 18 could be guilty of a Class B misdemeanor.

Legislation approved by the Senate Thursday would change that discrepancy.

Senate Bill 45 would strike from state law language handing down different penalties for those under 21, instead using the same civil violation system, which functions similarly to a speeding ticket.

An individual younger than 21, regardless of whether he or she is 12 or 20, found to be in possession of cannabis would face a fine of up to $100 on a first offense, while a second offense would carry a penalty of between $200 and $500.

Any subsequent violations would still be an unclassified misdemeanor.

“This is one of those cleanup bills that can seem small but is actually very important,” Sen. Trey Paradee, a Dover Democrat who is the bill’s main sponsor, said in a statement. “Making sure that Delaware’s teens aren’t made criminals for the same minor possession charges we just decriminalized for adults is important.

“It’s fundamentally about fairness and uniformity in our code, but it will also – like many other criminal justice bills this year – ensure that kids aren’t being saddled with criminal records for minor offenses.”

The measure was approved 13-6, with two senators absent. It now goes to the House.

A similar bill that would apply for underage alcohol use or possession was passed by the Senate with no opposition in May and released from a House committee last week.

Both bills are part of a host of criminal justice proposals introduced over the past few months that seek to treat lawbreakers with a lighter hand in hopes of making the state’s criminal justice system more rehabilitative and less punitive.

Another part of that package would lead to fewer people being tried as adults for crimes committed as teenagers. Senate Bill 41, which the Senate approved 19-0 with two members absent Tuesday, would require prosecutors to use the age when the offense occurred rather than the age of arrest.

Minors are generally tried in the Family Court rather than Superior Court.

In 1992, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled Bernard Howard, who was charged for selling cocaine when he was 17, could be prosecuted as an adult because he was arrested two weeks after he turned 18. Mr. Howard, who later changed his last name to Pepukayi, went on to earn a law degree, and he ran unsuccessfully as the Republican Party’s nominee for attorney general last year.

“It is wonderful to see this legislation,” Mr. Pepukayi said in a statement. “This will help prevent the pain, stigma and limitation of opportunities created by the strategic decision of when to arrest a child. I applaud all who were involved to make this happen.”

DHSS reform
Legislation filed Thursday would examine splitting up the Department of Health and Social Services, the state’s largest cabinet agency. Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore, Senate Bill 163 would create a committee to analyze reorganizing the department.

“DHSS is a massive organization with nearly a dozen divisions and an enormous number of responsibilities, each vital to the health, safety and welfare of our state,” Sen. Poore, a New Castle Democrat, said in a statement. “Given our state’s strong financial position, we should be doing more than just adding funding to the status quo. We need to take a hard look at how we can provide the best service possible.”

The agency’s functions include areas as varied as enforcing child support, overseeing Medicare and providing services for the visually impaired. With nearly 4,000 employees, it is the largest executive branch agency, and its budget for the current fiscal year totals nearly $1.2 billion, about 28 percent of the state’s overall spending plan.

Only the Department of Education receives more funding, and most of the money it gets is distributed to school districts.

According to the Senate Democratic caucus, DHSS was formed in 1970. Five years later, the Department of Correction was spun off from it. In 1983, another part of DHSS was split up, creating the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families.

A spokesman for Gov. John Carney did not take a firm stance on reorganizing the department.

“The Governor has spoken with Senator Poore about her bill, and understands the Senator’s interest in this issue,” Jonathan Starkey wrote in an email. “The fact is DHSS operates health care and social service programs that tens of thousands of Delawareans and Delaware families rely on every day.

“The agency runs our Medicaid program that provides affordable health coverage for low-income Delaware families, works on the ground level to confront our addiction crisis, and leads our response to public health emergencies. Any discussions about restructuring or reforming DHSS should include significant engagement with those Delawareans, and those Delaware families who may be affected – including employees of the agency. We will continue to discuss the legislation with Senator Poore.”

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

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