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House approves marijuana legalization bill

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Delaware marijuana pot legalization

Delaware is a step closer to marijuana legalization after the House of Representatives approved House Bill 1 on Tuesday. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFF W/UNSPLASH.COM

DOVER – The state House of Representatives passed a bill to legalize personal amounts of marijuana in Delaware on Tuesday afternoon, meaning the measure is likely to endure another veto override vote this year.

Last year, Gov. John Carney issued a rare veto on a bill to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, arguing that it is bad health policy and has too many unresolved consequences for employers and public safety. He told Delaware Business Times in December that his stance has not changed.

On Tuesday, a virtually identical bill, House Bill 1, passed in a bipartisan 28-13 vote, needing only a simple majority for approval. Notably, Republican Reps. Mike Ramone, Mike Smith and Jeff Spiegelman supported the bill, and Democrat Stephanie Bolden backed it after staying on the sidelines last year. Democratic House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf, a longtime opponent of legalization, voted against the bill again.

It now heads to the State Senate, where it needs 11 votes for passage – a near certainty in the chamber where many progressive Democrats currently hold seats and the Senate president, David Sokola, is in support.

Should HB 1 return to the governor’s desk and he vetoes it, bill sponsor Rep. Ed Osienski (D-Newark) will need to lobby 24 of his colleagues to override the governor, a feat he could not close last year but he’s optimistic could occur now with a few new legislators in the mix after last year’s election.

While Gov. Jack Markell approved decriminalizing simple marijuana possession in 2015, and Carney extend that protection to minors in 2019, possession of a small amount of marijuana can still result in a fine. HB 1 would remove all penalties for possession of a personal use quantity of marijuana, except for those who are under 21 years of age.

“Although this civil offense is not as harmful as an arrest, these citations cannot be expunged and still appear in public record searches. This gap has caused a number of Delawareans to miss out on life changing job opportunities due to the appearance of citations on background checks,” Osienski said before the floor vote Tuesday.

Possession of more than a personal use quantity of marijuana and public consumption would remain unclassified misdemeanors. A personal use quantity would be defined as 1 ounce or less of leaf marijuana, 12 grams or less of concentrated cannabis, or cannabis products containing 750 milligrams or less of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol.

Meanwhile, the companion House Bill 2, which would create and regulate a legal industry of growing and selling cannabis, remains to have its first floor vote after passing in committee.

Osienski, who has unsuccessfully fought for legalization for several year, said he felt resolved to try again this year after the drug has been legalized in 21 states and Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, New Jersey’s legal market has taken off and Maryland prepares to open its own this July.

Opponents of HB 1 were largely House Republicans, who cited the effects on the drug on brain development as a reason to not support full legalization. Rep. Jeff Hilovsky brought Dr. Richard Henderson, a past president of the Delaware Medical Society, to testify against the bill. While the MSD does support removal of marijuana as a federal Schedule I narcotic so it could be researched further, the advocacy group opposed legalization, he said.

“There are three longitudinal studies in humans that demonstrate particularly a concerning effect on brain development, particularly young people,” Henderson told legislators.

Rep. Richard Collins repeated an argument often cited by Gov. Carney, saying, “I believe that most of the body in here are opposed to smoking. I frankly haven’t heard anybody say we should start smoking cigarettes again. And smoking marijuana is at least as bad.”

Breaking with most of his caucus, however, was House Minority Leader Ramone, who said he was supportive of legalization because marijuana is already readily available in the community illegally, and moving to a regulated market could provide greater product quality assurance to consumers.

“I actually feel optimistic that passing this bill could create an environment where we have a level of control of what is coming to people and they’ll know what they’re consuming,” he said.

Osienski agreed, and added that legalization even without a state regulated sales market would ensure that consumers could go to neighboring states to get such quality assurance through legal sales without fear of repercussions at home.

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