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Pot legalization gets new life in split bills

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A new effort to divide and approve marijuana legalization and recreational sales in Delaware passed its first test in House committee hearings Wednesday. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ELSA OLOFSSON/UNSPLASH

DOVER – A new attempt to push through marijuana legalization in Delaware while creating a framework for recreational sales has gained fresh life in the legislature after the House shot down an effort by two votes last month.

Rep. Edward Osienski | PHOTO COURTESY OF STATE OF DELAWARE

On Wednesday, two separate House committees approved bills that would remove any fines for possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana, while another sets up the regulatory framework for sales. The effort is the latest by chief legislative proponent Rep. Ed Osienski (D-Newark), whose combined bill failed to find enough Democratic support or a few Republican supporters in a somewhat surprising 23-14 vote on March 10.

Seeking to push through at least half of the bill’s agenda, he split the effort into two bills, House Bills 371 and 372, to try to gain approval during the current legislative session. An election in the fall may change the makeup of Legislative Hall.

HB 371, which would remove any civil penalty for simple marijuana possession by adults in the state, essentially moving from a decriminalized to legalized model, would only need to find bare majorities in both the House and Senate for passage – something that Osienski has been able to shepherd previously. HB 372, which essentially sets up the state’s retail sale and taxation framework that largely rehashes his earlier failed bill, would still need to find a three-fifths majority since it creates new taxes though.

Osienski has said he believes fully legalizing marijuana in the state first may help some votes come around on the idea of creating a regulatory framework for retail sales. It could also provide some cover for lawmakers who don’t want to vote for legalization, but support taxation and sales if legalization is approved.

The last-ditch effort with about 10 weeks left in the legislative session comes as New Jersey is just weeks away from beginning recreational marijuana sales while Marylanders will consider legalization in a ballot initiative this November, where the measure is widely popular.

The first day of hearings on the new effort in Delaware didn’t end without some controversy though.

HB 371 was approved by seven Democrats in the House Health & Human Development Committee. After Osienski introduced the bill Wednesday, however, Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown (D-Delaware City) motioned to approve it without allowing public comment and it was quickly seconded, drawing the ire of committee Republicans.

After hearing a legal opinion from a House lawyer on the atypical move, who advised allowing public comment before the vote despite some ambiguity in the procedures, Committee Chair David Bentz (D-Christiana) moved to allow the vote to proceed. Republicans walked out in protest.

An hour later, Osienski was before the House Revenue & Finance Committee to hear HB 372. After nearly two hours of questions and public comment, the bill advanced in a 9-3 vote, which notably saw Republican Rep. Mike Smith (Pike Creek) vote for approval after denying Osienski’s earlier bill in a dramatic House floor vote. Rep. Jeff Spiegelman (R-Clayton), who had at one time been a proponent for legalization, skipped the hearing on HB 372 citing the same undisclosed conflict of interest that saw him sit out the earlier floor vote.

“We’ve made sure that we’ve learned from the lessons of other states,” Osienski told the committee, referring to packaging requirements that would help reduce accidental ingestion of edibles or other marijuana products. “Every legislative session in Colorado since a decade ago has had some sort of legislation introduced from lessons learned … I imagine we’ll be doing the same thing.”

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