COMMENTARY: Voting ‘No’ on marijuana decriminalization bill

Earlier this month, legislation that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana was approved by the state House. However, I was among the 14 legislators who voted against the measure. Because this is a bill that has generated a lot of public interest, it’s particularly important to explain why I voted “no” on House Bill 39.

According to the legislation, as amended, anyone who is at least 21 years old and found to be in possession of or privately using one ounce or less of leaf marijuana would face only a maximum fine of $100. Offenders between the ages of 18 and 21 would receive a civil penalty for a first offense, but subsequent violations would be “unclassified criminal misdemeanors,” punishable by a fine of $100. Minors convicted of criminal possession would be eligible for “mandatory expungement” under certain criteria once they reach the age of 21.

The amendment that was added also refines the prohibition against using marijuana in an “area accessible to the public” and restores the criminal penalty for use or consumption of marijuana in a moving vehicle.

My decision to not support marijuana decriminalization was mainly centered on the public-safety concerns brought to lawmakers’ attention by the Delaware State Troopers Association and other law-enforcement representatives.

Jeffrey Spiegelman

Jeffrey Spiegelman

As I stated in my comments during the House floor debate of the bill, I remain concerned that enacting such a measure would only protect “the business” of drug dealing in Delaware and further impinge upon police in their ability to make drug arrests for more-serious violations involving cocaine and heroin, as well as weapons charges.

I have received pages, and pages, and pages of arrest documents — all from the last year — and the facts support the argument that decriminalization would create an outstanding atmosphere of business protection for the very people whose business we do not want in this state.

In 2014, there were 3,900 arrests for the possession of marijuana totaling one ounce or less. Of that number, 2,800 of the arrests — more than two-thirds — included felony charges for more-serious drug offenses.

In correspondence provided to all members of the General Assembly, Thomas Brackin, president of the DSTA, stated: “Our experience suggests that most of those who smoke marijuana do not necessarily use cocaine or heroin. However, most dealers of heroin and cocaine generally use marijuana on a regular basis. Their criminal possession of marijuana affords us the ability to secure a warrant that often leads to more serious drug charges. We believe that losing this tool will seriously hamper our ability to combat the rising tide of heroin abuse in our state.”

Proponents of the bill have also stated that decriminalization is needed in order to finally do away with the low-level charge of possession and any subsequent, seemingly unfair stigma that may be associated with such an arrest. In response to that concern, Mr. Brackin further stated, “For the record, and supported by Criminal Justice Council records, no one today is jailed for a mere charge of marijuana possession.”

Again, there is enough evidence to show that a simple-possession-of-marijuana arrest, just in the last year alone, often led to weapons and more-serious drug charges.

I am proud to have stood with law enforcement in opposing this legislation. It was the right thing to do for Delaware and to protect our state’s public safety. House Bill 39 now heads to the Senate for consideration there.

In the meantime, I think it is also important to state that I am in support of legislation that provides medical marijuana for those suffering from illnesses with symptoms that could be eased by the use of the drug. In fact, just this month, I proudly voted in favor of a bill that will expand the use of medical marijuana oil as a treatment option. I also had the opportunity to tour Delaware’s medical marijuana dispensary — First State Compassion Center — in Wilmington, which is set to open at the end of the month.

When it comes to providing marijuana to those who are in most need of it to relieve often-painful and/or debilitating symptoms from serious medical conditions, I fully support this effort.

State Rep. Jeffrey N. Spiegelman
R-District 11 (Hartly, Kenton, Townsend and surrounding areas)
Clayton

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