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Recreational pot sales bill fails second House vote

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House Bill 372, which would have set up a recreational sales system for marijuana, failed a House vote on Thursday night.| PHOTO BY BUDDING . on UNSPLASH

DOVER – Recreational sales of marijuana may no longer be on the horizon after the state House of Representatives denied the measure by a razor thin one-vote margin Thursday evening.

The vote comes just days after the General Assembly approved a measure by wide margins to remove any penalty of personal possession of a small amount of marijuana, which was seen as a strategy to push over the final hurdle in the House for recreational sales.

The failure for House Bill 372, which would have set up a regulatory, sales and tax framework for the sale of marijuana in the state, also leaves its companion House Bill 371 in peril. State Sen. Trey Paradee (D-Dover) previously said he would ask Gov. John Carney to veto that bill if HB 372 was not passed.

On Thursday, lead sponsor Rep. Ed Osienski (D-Newark) was unable to find two more votes than he was able to muster earlier this year in a similar effort. The strategy of legalization first was notably able to sway House Speaker Peter Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach), who has long opposed measures to legalize marijuana in the state.

However, House Majority Whip John “Larry” Mitchell was absent from the floor vote Thursday and it may have cost the effort a victory. He had voted for the similar bill in March, and backed HB 371 earlier this month. Mitchell was reportedly absent due to illness.

Key House Republicans who have expressed some support of legalization also did not back the bill, with Rep. Michael Smith (R-Pike Creek) voting against and Rep. Jeff Spiegelman (R-Clayton) not voting for a second time this year, citing an unspecified conflict of interest.

Needing a three-fifths supermajority because the bill creates new taxes and fees, the 24-15 vote was one vote shy of the minimum number of votes in the 41-member House.

The effort is not dead completely, as Osienski switched his vote to against HB 372 at the last moment, preserving his ability to reconsider the bill before the House at a later time. The legislative session is rapidly winding down to its June 30 deadline though, and much of the limited legislative days in June are taken up by state budget deliberations.

Meanwhile, if Osienski can find the votes, he will likely have to override a veto from Gov. John Carney, who has adamantly been opposed to recreational marijuana sales. He has yet to act on HB 371 and whether to reduce penalties for simple possession in the state.

Prior to Thursday’s vote, a spokesperson for Carney said, “The Governor has been clear that he does not support the legalization of marijuana, and his position has not changed.”

The addition of Schwartzkopf’s support, as well as a vote in favor by Rep. Stephanie Bolden (D-Wilmington) for the first time, has energized proponents of legalization though.

“We did manage to pick up two new ‘Yes’ votes, bringing legalization of an adult-use cannabis market the closest that it has ever come to passing the House. If not for the co-sponsor’s absence, we believe that we would have passed this bill. We are calling the bill to be reheard as soon as possible,” said the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network, a coalition of grassroots organizations, in a Thursday statement.

HB 372 intends to set up a regulatory framework under the state Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement and allocate 30 retail sale licenses, 30 manufacturing licenses, 60 cultivation licenses and five testing licenses to be issued within 19 months of the bill’s approval. Retail marijuana sales would be subject to a 15% tax, but medical cannabis sales would be tax free.

Several facets of the bill address communities that have been disproportionately impacted by enforcement of marijuana laws. Half of all retail licenses and a third of manufacturing and cultivation licenses would be reserved for “social equity” entities that are majority-owned by people with past cannabis convictions or who live in an area disproportionately impacted by the drug war.

Half of the marijuana sales tax would also be allocated to a new Justice Reinvestment Fund, which would provide grants and services aimed at criminal diversion and workforce development for those same communities, while also funding an expungement program tied to marijuana convictions.

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