Publisher’s View: Recreational marijuana risks warrant greater caution
By Rob Martinelli
I have never bought into the argument that something is OK just because everyone else is doing it.
Thirty-five states including Delaware have now approved medical-marijuana use, but less than half (including Washington, D.C.) have approved recreational use. I believe the Delaware legislature is not looking closely enough at the harmful side effects of Delaware House Bill 150 (HB150) that would legalize marijuana for recreational use.
State Auditor Kathy McGuiness released a report in January that said Delaware could realize more than $43 million in annual tax revenue from the regulation and taxation of legal marijuana, assuming a 20% tax on $215 million in estimated retail sales. The Delaware bill would only impose a 15% sales tax.
The report also argued that the black market would be suppressed. But there is no real evidence that legalization at the state level reduces the illicit/black markets, particularly in states that implement some sort of tax. For example, California’s legal market generates about $4 billion in annual sales while its illegal market (which includes nationwide distribution) does about an estimated $10 billion, according to a recent story in Forbes magazine. With the possibility of the black market growing and the lower tax than was used in the McGuiness report, it’s likely the revenue from legal marijuana will be much lower than expected.
There is a difference between marijuana decriminalization and efforts to legalize cannabis consumption. There are social-justice reasons in favor of the first, but I agree with employers who are concerned about the second here in Delaware.
Gov. John Carney is on record supporting decriminalization and expanding Delaware’s medical marijuana program, but he remains concerned about legalizing recreational use.
As currently written, HB150 does allow employers to restrict the use of cannabis while at work, but it doesn’t include language on prohibiting its use after work hours. Business leaders understandably want to ensure they can enforce their current zero-tolerance policies on impairment, particularly if remote working remains in place.
This seems to be a time when Delaware’s well-deserved reputation for watching what other states do before acting is the correct strategy.
In Maryland, for example, lawmakers recently gave up on the effort to legalize recreational marijuana until 2022 because, as the sponsor put it, they “didn’t want to jam out a bill that would have problems immediately. We really wanted to get it right using best practices from other states.”
Delaware shouldn’t rush to pass recreational marijuana laws out of fear that people will go out of state to buy pot or because a majority of Delawareans say they support legalization when the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug.
In total, 19 states and the District of Columbia now have laws restricting employers’ ability to take marijuana usage into account when making employment decisions. State laws vary widely both in how extensively they limit employers’ actions, as well as in the number and types of exceptions they allow.
The Delaware State Chamber of Commerce has asked lawmakers to ensure that employers can regulate marijuana use in the same way that some Delaware companies can prohibit tobacco use for safety reasons, regardless of whether the employee is at work or at home. The state chamber also wants liability protection for employers as well as a spot test that can measure impairment before lawmakers consider passing HB150. I believe all those are good ideas so long as we consider the challenges of testing in a remote world.
Business owners’ liability concerns should be taken into greater account than the percentage of people who support legalization, and there are other open questions that need to be addressed.
In addition to the growth of the black market after legalization in some states, we need to be concerned about possible increased access to marijuana by adolescents if people 21 or older can buy it. According to a new analysis of federal data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, researchers found that within a year of first trying marijuana, 11% of adolescents had become addicted to it, compared to 6.4% of young adults. Even more striking was that within three years of first trying the drug, 20% of adolescents became dependent on it, almost double the number of young adults.
In the state of Washington which was one of the first states to legalize recreational use, perceived harm from cannabis fell and usage increased significantly for both eighth and 10th graders compared to non-legalized states. Do we really want this for our kids?
HB150 should not be passed just to keep pace with neighboring states or because a majority of our residents think it should be.
Rob Martinelli is the president and CEO of Today Media, the parent company of Delaware Business Times.