TV travel host promotes legalized pot

International travel writer Rick Steves speaks during a cannabis policy reform advocacy press conference at Leg Hall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Heated viewpoints on recreational marijuana collided at Legislative Hall on Wednesday.

Advocates for policy reform claimed laws prohibiting use of the drug were a breach of civil liberties and empowered and enriched organized crime.

They also said prohibition laws are ineffective in addressing addiction rates and even went as far as calling the current laws “racist.”

Opponents of legalization hit back with claims that a change in the current laws could cause a spike in usage — especially among young people — and could lead to an increase in deaths related to operating a motor vehicle under the influence of cannabis.

An Adult Use Cannabis Task Force work-shopping draft legalization of House Bill 110 — a proposed law that would legalize a “regulated and taxed” legal cannabis market.

Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network Executive Director Zoe Patchell speaks during a press conference as travel writer Rick Steves looks on at Leg Hall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Ahead of the meeting, advocates for the bill hosted a press conference featuring Rick Steves, a PBS travel show host and writer and national recreational cannabis advocate.

Mr. Steves noted he’s spent the last 15 years trying to help “take apart prohibition on marijuana in America” because of what he’s learned about the issue after decades of touring Europe.

“In Europe, people are always reminding me that society has to make a choice: tolerate alternative lifestyles or build more prisons,” he said. “Americans lock up 10 times as many people per capita as they do. Either we’re an inherently more criminal society or there is something screwy about our laws.”

Claiming that 70,000 Americans were currently in jail for “nonviolent possession of marijuana offenses,” Mr. Steves said current laws were “painful and embarrassing.”

“In this last year, we’ve actually arrested around 700,000 people — and they aren’t wealthy white people like me, they’re poor people and black people — this is a racist law,” he said. “For me, the racial issue is huge, this is the new Jim Crow laws in our society.”

Drawing comparisons to his home state of Washington, Mr. Steves said HB110 is a “public safety law.” He claims that Washington’s legal marijuana industry created $310 million worth of tax revenue over a 12-month period — $40 million of which was invested in “prevention, education and health centers dealing with drug problems.”

“It’s not a pro-pot law,” he said. “It’s a pro-civil liberties law, anti-racism law, fiscal responsibility measure and a take the wind out of a thriving black market law.”

In the task force meeting, co-chairs Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, and Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, fielded drafting suggestions from the 25-member group. The task force includes a mixed bag of public officials, agency and organization representatives and health specialists.

The task force has been looking at the issues around legalization since September, it’s expected to issue it’s final recommendations to the General Assembly and governor after Feb. 28.

Exactly what lawmakers do with legalization remains unknown. The bill has passed out of a House committee but still needs to be approved by both chambers and then signed by the governor. None of those things are certainties, especially given Gov. John Carney’s stated view that Delaware “should take it slowly and learn from other states.”

Rep. Stephen Smick looks over documents during the Cannabis Adult Use Task Force meeting at Leg Hall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Rep. Keeley said the input of various state agencies and advocates during the task force process have been instructive.

“Sen. Henry and I did not take any of the comments made during the task force meetings lightly,” she said. “Whether it was for or against the legalization of cannabis, we want to address every single issue that we possibly can. Good legislation makes good policy.”

The 15-page draft circulated at the task force meeting summarized their progress. It included recommendations regarding the local authority and control over legal cannabis, consumer safety, packaging and labeling, taxation, revenue, banking regulations and criminal law concerns.

HB 110 would allow adults to buy weed from specialized, approved stores. 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.

For some in the task force, changes to the bill would still have no effect on their opinion.

“We are opposed to the legalization recreational marijuana because not enough research has been done to tell us whether or not it’s safe,” Nicholas Biasotto from the Medical Society of Delaware said on Wednesday. “This is something that has been federally restricted in the sense that it is a class one drug and is not able to be adequately researched. This, we have no control over. At this point, we still oppose it because there is not enough known about it.”

Public Opinion

During the public comments portion of the meeting, three people spoke out for the legislation and three against it. William Lynch Jr., a hospital pharmacist and adviser to an advocacy group called atTAcK addiction went as far as holding legislators personally accountable for the passage of any bill legalizing recreational cannabis use.

International travel writer Rick Steves viewed through the back of an iphone during a cannabis policy reform advocacy press conference at Leg Hall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“Sen. Henry, Rep. Keeley and every other state representative who votes in favor of HB 110, the blood will be on your hands for every future toddler who suffers from accidental marijuana overdose, for every Delawarean who dies from a future marijuana related traffic accident, has a psychotic crisis, develops schizophrenia or other mental illnesses, has a heart attack or stroke and becomes an opiate or heroin addict related to marijuana use,” he said. “What will those of you who voted for HB 110 do then? Would you repeal the bill? We think not. But, all of you who vote for it will be complicit in all those Delawarean’s future demises.”

Zoë Patchell, executive director of Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network, took exception to the comment.

“Those claims are some of the easiest to debunk,” she said. “There was a Department of Justice DEA report that says that marijuana hasn’t been associated with any overdose, ever. That’s just the silliest thing to say because there’s such an abundance of research that shows that cannabis hasn’t ever caused a death. There have also been no studies that suggest regulating the current cannabis market leads to an increase in DUI or accident fatalities.”

Ms. Patchell who describes herself as an avid cannabis consumer and enthusiast said the biggest obstacle facing the new bill in the state is likely “misinformation.”

“There are so many reasons to legalize cannabis and you don’t have to be a consumer to support the issue,” she said. “It’s a civil and human rights issue, a fiscal responsibility matter for the state and it’s a criminal justice concern.”

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

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