[caption id="attachment_209182" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] A House committee cleared a bill for recreational marijuana legalization in Delaware, with employers and health care leaders voicing less opposition this year. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BUDDING/UNSPLASH[/caption]
DOVER – The years-long debate over marijuana legalization in Delaware began anew this year with the introduction of House Bill 305, the third attempt sponsored by Rep. Ed Osienski (D-Newark).
[caption id="attachment_207739" align="alignright" width="200"] Rep. Edward Osienski | PHOTO COURTESY OF STATE OF DELAWARE[/caption]
The bill quickly passed its first test in a Jan. 26 hearing by the House Health & Human Development Committee, where a 10-4 vote advanced the bill to a potential vote on the House floor. The committee vote came largely along party lines, although Republican Rep. Mike Smith joined Democrats in support of advancing the bill that saw more than 25 people testify in support and no one explicitly oppose.A similar legalization bill by Osienski also passed in committee last year but failed to get a floor vote in the wider House of Representatives. The Delaware Legislative Black Caucus raised concerns over the finer points of the racial equity provisions of that bill, imperiling its ability to pass. Democratic House leaders have also traditionally been cooler to advancing legalization, while a newly progressive Senate Democratic Caucus is expected to pass the measure.Osienski met with Black lawmakers, state officials and cause proponents over the past year to craft a bill that had the potential to pass this session, after New Jersey and Virginia have approved legalization in recent years.HB305 would allow legal personal possession of 1 ounce of marijuana for adults ages 21 or older and set up a framework for its taxation and sale. It allocates 30 retail sale licenses, 30 manufacturing licenses, 60 cultivation licenses and five testing licenses to be issued within 16 months of the bill’s approval.In deference to concerns from law enforcement and the business community, it does not change existing state law regarding driving under the influence nor illegal public consumption and retains an employer’s ability to enforce a zero-tolerance workplace through drug testing. Despite calls from some advocates for allowing private growing, the bill will not allow home cultivation.“Over the past several years, we have listened to concerns from communities that have, for decades, been negatively impacted by the prohibition of marijuana to try to undo some of the harm done, and ensure that these same communities will benefit from the now legal market,” Osienski said, noting that HB305 expunges most prior marijuana offenses and creates a new social equity licensing pool for those who live in a disproportionately affected area, have been convicted of a marijuana-related offense or whose parent was convicted.That social equity pool will contain half of the first-round retail licenses, a third of cultivation and manufacturing licenses, and two testing licenses. The bill also directs 7% of recreational marijuana sales tax revenue be placed in a Justice Reinvestment Fund, that will be administered by the Delaware Department of Justice for grants, contract services and initiatives on criminal justice improvements. restorative justice, jail diversion, workforce development, and more.Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha (D-Wilmington), a member of the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus, said those social justice factors were a welcome addition to the revised legislation.“The opportunity that this fund creates is just limitless. I'm thankful for its inclusion and I truly believe that it can have the opportunity to repair some of the harm that has been long standing in our communities,” he said.One of the few opponents of the bill is Rep. Charles Postles Jr. (R-Frederica), who voiced concerns over the impact of recreational marijuana with high THC contents on brain development, particularly in teens and young adults. Some health studies have found cognitive impacts in young marijuana users and the U.S. Surgeon General advises against marijuana use.“Why would we want to saddle our kids and our grandkids and limit their potential, their lifelong earnings, by exposing them to this harmful drug that would impair their brain development? To me, that eclipses all the other discussion and there's lots of good discussion we can have,” he said.Rep. Paul Baumbach (D-Newark) argued it wasn’t a question of allowing or denying marijuana use, as a widespread illicit market exists and has for generations, but how to improve the situation.“When I talk about this bill, I never say marijuana legalization. I say that it is marijuana legalization, taxation, and regulation. I think a highly regulated cannabis market in Delaware is a far safer environment and is very good public policy,” he noted.The committee hearing was devoid of the typical opponents to legalization, and the Carney administration’s agency representatives largely were offering policy tweaks, wording changes or further regulatory factors, suggesting that HB305 may have a chance to passage this year.Notably, representatives for the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce and Nemours Children’s Health remained neutral on the bill and sought further assurances to protect employers and prevent adolescent use. Representatives from medical marijuana industry companies, some of whom opposed Osienski’s bill last year, now support it or remained neutral.In public testimony, former Delaware Fraternal Order of Police President Fred Calhoun was one of several law enforcement members to back legalization, noting it’s potential to assist disproportionately impacted communities. He also shared that his wife, paralyzed from a sports injury, has benefitted from the drug.“It took her and me a long time to come around to the idea that marijuana could be helpful but through our research, I've learned that it can be helpful and I see what it can do to people firsthand,” he said.The committee also heard from Joy Strand, an executive for an affiliate of marijuana giant Columbia Care who was also a former executive director of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, which oversees the neighboring state’s medical marijuana program. She supported HB305, but suggested Delaware retain one regulator for both medical and recreational marijuana.“It's inefficient [to have two regulators] and we have seen this in other states with increased expense, delays and a lot of inefficiencies,” she said, calling the new government framework and large number of licenses to be assigned quickly a potential “regulatory nightmare.”