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Carney vetoes pot legalization

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DOVER – As he had hinted for weeks, Gov. John Carney has vetoed House Bill 371, which removes any penalty for personal marijuana possession in the First State.

In the past two months, the legislature has been debating whether to legalize weed in small amounts and to create a licensing, sales and taxation system that would put Delaware close to many states that have already done so. New Jersey recently began recreational marijuana sales while Marylanders will consider legalization in a ballot initiative this November, where the measure is widely popular.

The effort to legalize recreational marijuana has been walking a thin line this session, with compromises made along the way – and HB 371 was the first bill to make it to the governor’s desk.

In a statement to the legislature and the press, Carney said that he “recognizes the positive effect marijuana can have” for people with health conditions, and he continues to support the medical marijuana industry.

“That said, I do not believe that promoting or expanding the use of recreational marijuana is in the best interests of the state of Delaware, especially our young people,” Carney continued. “Questions about the long-term health and economic impacts of recreational marijuana use, as well as serious law enforcement concerns, remain unresolved.”

HB 371, which was sponsored by Rep. Ed Osienski (D-Newark), has been waiting for the governor to act since the senate passed the measure on May 12.

In 2019, the governor signed a bill that made personal marijuana possession a civil violation for those who are age 21 and younger. Four years before that, Gov. Jack Markell signed a bill that eliminated arrests and jail time for adults who possessed a small amount of marijuana, making it a civil infraction.

“I supported decriminalization of marijuana because I agree that individuals should not be imprisoned solely for the possession and private use of a small amount of marijuana — and today, thanks to Delaware’s decriminalization law, they are not,” Carney said. “I respect the Legislative Branch’s role in this process, and I understand that some hold a different view on this issue. However, I have been clear about my position since before I took office, and I have articulated my concerns many times.” 

Osienski spearheaded the third attempt to decriminalize marijuana, and in March, a previous iteration of the bill was voted on the House floor for the first time. However, that bill –  which would both decriminalize marijuana and create a licensing system – failed after representatives caucused for hours and later introduced surprise amendments.

He later introduced two bills: HB 371 and HB 372, which would create the licensing system for licenses for recreational sales. The idea of legalizing marijuana before addressing sales was not enough to sway House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach), who has long opposed measures to legalize marijuana in the state.

But HB 372 fell last week on a razor-thin margin of one vote. Osienski then switched his vote to preserve his ability to bring it back to the House once more in June.

In a prepared comment after Carney vetoed HB 371, Osienski expressed disappointment that the governor chose to “ignore the will of residents and a bipartisan super-majority of the General Assembly.”

“More than 60% of Delawareans support the legalization of marijuana for adult recreational use. Earlier this month, more than 60% of the General Assembly voted in favor of ending the prohibition against possession of a personal use quantity of marijuana,” he said. “Vetoing HB 371 will not stop people from obtaining and consuming marijuana. It simply means they could face civil penalties for possession.”

He also noted that Carney did not choose to let the bill become law without his signature, a measure that typically shows that the governor understands the legislature has the votes and the people’s support to see the bill become a law – just not without his signed endorsement.

“We have to look no further than New Jersey to see how a new industry can create jobs and generate revenue – sales reached nearly $2 million on its first day,” Osienski said. “Until we establish a similar market in Delaware, people will continue to obtain marijuana illegally here through the illicit market or send tax revenue across the Delaware Memorial Bridge to New Jersey.”

The representative said he will “review what options are available” and decide his next move.

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