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Senate passes marijuana legalization, sales

Katie Tabeling
Delaware is a step closer to marijuana legalization after the State Senate approved House Bill 1 and House Bill 2 on Tuesday. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFF W/UNSPLASH.COM

Delaware is a step closer to marijuana legalization after the State Senate approved House Bill 1 and House Bill 2 on Tuesday. It’s up to Gov. John Carney to see if the bills will become law or will be vetoed once again.| PHOTO BY BUDDING . on UNSPLASH

DOVER — Despite yet another year of last-minute amendments, the State Senate ultimately passed two bills Tuesday afternoon that would legalize marijuana use and recreational sales, once again sending the measure to Gov. John Carney’s desk for his decision.

The question now is whether Carney will sign or veto the bills — or let it go into law without his signature.

Last year, the governor 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. In an interview with the Delaware Business Times in December, he said his stance has not changed.

The effort in the First State has always been an uphill battle in years past, as factions within the Democratic House Caucus have been unable to unite behind marijuana legalization. The House would need 25 votes to overturn the governor’s veto. Last session’s veto override attempt failed at a split 20-20 House vote.

On Tuesday, both House Bill 1, which legalizes personal amounts of marijuana in Delaware, and House Bill 2, which establishes regulations to grow and sell recreational cannabis, passed mostly along party lines. State Sen. Eric Buckson (R-South Dover/Frederica) was the lone Republican to vote for HB 1, and he voted against HB 2.

State Sen. Trey Paradee (D-Dover/Camden), who shepherded both bills in the chamber, thanked his colleagues for standing together, noting that by this time Delaware was being outpaced by 21 states and Washington, D.C., in legalization. In the delay, he argued that the state may have lost out between $100 million to $200 million in tax revenue.

“As neighboring states move to legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana, Delaware is quickly becoming an island of prohibition — despite the reality that marijuana is here to stay,” Paradee said in a statement. “Today, we embrace that reality and take steps to shift what is currently an illegal market into a legal one that benefits Delaware’s economy.”

He also argued that if the state allowed a referendum vote, marijuana would have been legalized years ago, noting that a University of Delaware poll showed that 60% of Delawareans believe that it should be legalized. Other studies from the Federal Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration suggest that 18% of Delaware adults, or 145,000, already consume cannabis.

“That usage rate is not much different from several other states where marijuana is already legal. Those states allow those citizens to purchase a safe, tested product in a secure location, while adding millions to the state’s coffers to pay for schools, roads, law enforcement and opioid treatment,” he said in his opening statement on Tuesday afternoon.

The Delaware Cannabis Industry Association, which represents medical marijuana businesses, applauded the Senate for passing both bills, but added that it supported a safe, well-regulated marketplace to ensure safety and “not to disrupt the established medical marijuana program” that thousands of Delawareans use.

“We want Delaware to learn from the faulty implementation that happened in other states, which included untested and unsafe products being sold on the illicit market, and take appropriate measures to regulate the industry,” the statement from the Delaware Cannabis Industry Association said in a prepared statement.

“We hope to work with the General Assembly and the Governor to create this regulated marketplace that provides access for adult use, while preserving the protections Delawareans expect and deserve,” the statement continued.

While Buckson was supportive of general legalization, he presented two last-minute amendments for HB 2, which would establish a marijuana control enforcement fee assessed at point of sale, set at 15%, with a percentage going to a Justice Reinvestment Fund. The bill also creates an marijuana commissioner as well as an oversight committee to coordinate the roll-out of the license program.

Buckson’s first amendment would create political balance among the members of the oversight committee, by adding two more seats, as well as empowering the marijuana commissioner to fine license violators or revoke them as needed. The second amendment would have removed requirements for labor peace agreements in the bill. 

Both failed on party lines. Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker (R-Ocean View) expressed dismay that the Democrats would not open the door for party balance on the proposed committee.

“In all my number of years in this building, more so than anyone, this is the first time that I’ve ever seen the majority party keep someone off a commission from the minority party,” Hocker said. 

Once again, opponents to both bills were Senate Republicans. State Sen. Bryant Richardson (R-Seaford/Laurel) argued that there were too many unknowns on long-term marijuana use as well as citing concerns about legalization could open the door to a rise in crime, impared driving and child abuse and neglect.

State Sen. Dave Lawson (R-Marydel) raised concerns about how law enforcement would be able to identify impaired driving on the road. Neither HB 1 or HB 2 would change existing state law regarding driving under the influence of an illicit or recreational drug. They also would not allow individuals to grow their own plants. Public consumption of marijuana would still not be permitted.

“The trouble is getting information into the court and accepted by any judge because they’re not trained on how to detect marijuana. They’re trained to identify intoxication. Then, it boils down to what testing may be,” Lawson said. “I think there we will have unintended victims on the highway, at the least.”

Breaking from Carney’s stance, Lt. Governor Bethany Hall-Long indicated her support to legalize marijuana, namely that she was a longtime advocate for it. But she also said there were concerns when it came to public safety left to be addressed.

“Moving forward, we need to avoid mistakes made in other states and regulate marijuana properly to keep it out of the hands of our children, to ensure product and workplace safety and to also ensure fairness for businesses and for the medical use of marijuana,” Long-Hall said in a prepared statement. “There is work to be done to establish the necessary regulations to achieve these goals and a timeline that achieves the goal of safely legalizing marijuana for recreational use.”

Meanwhile, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a political organization opposed to  marijuana legalization and commercialization, called for Carney to veto both bills. SAM President and CEO Kevin Sabet was disappointed that the “reckless legislation” passed, arguing it lacked the basic protections like potency limits.

“Governor Carney, like President Biden, has repeatedly demonstrated tremendous courage in standing up to the big money and influence campaigns of the addiction-for-profit pot industry,” Sabet said. “The governor has expressed very real and valid concerns about the serious risks associated with a commercial marijuana market and understands that encouraging more drug use only serves to hurt the future of the state. We hope he takes swift action against these bills.”

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