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Pot legalization bill falls in House vote

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HB 305 failed a House vote on Thursday night.| PHOTO COURTESY OF BUDDING/UNSPLASH

DOVER – After a flurry of crafting last-minute amendments in a bid to muster support for the bill that would legalize marijuana, House Bill 305 failed in a floor vote Thursday evening.

The 23-14 vote fell along mostly party lines, although House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) was a lone Democratic vote against the bill and four members abstained, including two Democrats, which diluted the total to achieve passage. The measure needed two more affirmative votes to clear the House. HB305 was moved out of the House Health & Human Development Committee in January, and was moved out of the Appropriations Committee in mid-February.

Rep. Ed Osienski (D-Newark) sponsored the state’s third attempt at legalizing marijuana, and this version included several key changes to ensure licenses would be limited for a social equity pool. It also includes a 7% recreational marijuana sales tax revenue to be used for the Justice Reinvestment Fund on  initiatives on criminal justice improvements, jail diversion, workforce development, and more.

However, when the bill appeared for a vote Thursday evening after a long recess, it came with five amendments, many drafted by Rep. Mike Smith (R-Pike Creek). The proposed measures would make felony convictions part of the consideration of the licensing process. Another amendment would prohibit those with a marijuana-related conviction from applying for a social equity license.

Rep. Michael Smith | PHOTO COURTESY OF STATE OF DELAWARE

Those amendments failed. Smith, who called for a roll call vote on each measure, criticized his colleagues for ignoring the spirit of bipartisanship before the final vote on HB305.

“I came here today to vote for the legalization of marijuana. I told my own caucus that … [the roll call proves] that you guys do not care about bipartisanship. And this state needs to change,” Smith said. “And I hope people remember this moment because you killed the legalization of marijuana.”

HB305 would have allowed 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 would allocate 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, the drafted bill did 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.

Smith did have one notable amendment pass: the bill would not impose requirements for employers in terms of workplace policies or discipline.

Osienski himself amended the bill for technical corrections. It also included creating a state tax deduction for marijuana business expenses for licensees, similar to the one that exists for corporations, and exempting marijuana taxes on gross receipts taxes. 

Rep. Edward Osienski | PHOTO COURTESY OF STATE OF DELAWARE

After the bill failed, Osienski made it clear that the vote did not end his fight to legalize marijuana. 

“While I’m deeply disappointed by the outcome, I still firmly believe that Delaware is more than capable of successfully enacting policies for safe and legal cannabis, and I will continue working on this issue to win the support to make it a reality,” he said in a statement.

“For the advocates who have put in the time and effort these past four years, I’m grateful for your support and your passion on this issue, and I hope you will continue to make your voice heard on this issue,” he continued. “Throughout my time in the House, I’ve seen advocates sway opponents to various bills, and I believe legal recreational marijuana for adult users is no different.”

Many advocates had hoped that this would be the year for legalization, as New Jersey prepares to begin legal sales there within weeks and Virginia has passed legalization while continuing to work through a sales framework.

The effort in the First State has always been an uphill battle though, as Gov. John Carney remains opposed to legalization, therefore requiring proponents to hold together a veto-proof coalition. Factions within the Democratic House Caucus have led to the effort’s downfall for two consecutive sessions though.

Last year, the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus scuttled the bill over concerns with how the state’s proposed retail and growing licenses would be allocated, citing the disproportionate generation impact of the War of Drugs on the Black community. Osienski worked through their concerns out of session to craft the new bill, but still could hold together a majority coalition.

Schwartzkopf, a retired law enforcement officer, has long been cool to the idea of legalization despite leading House Democrats. Meanwhile, Democratic Reps. Stephanie Bolden (D-Wilmington) and Bill Bush (D-Dover) abstained from the vote, being joined by Republican Reps. Smith and Jeff Spiegelman (R-Clayton/Smyrna). Spiegelman cited an unknown conflict of interest for his abstention, having previously said he would support legalization.

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