Lawmakers are running out of time to act on a bill that would legalize marijuana in Delaware.
Some states fought to legalize the selling of alcohol during national Prohibition, and Rep. Paul Baumbach (D-Newark) said Delaware needs to do the same with marijuana.
In Baumbach’s eyes, a view he shares with a handful of his constituents in the state, this starts by passing House Bill 110, the Delaware Marijuana Control Act.
The bill would fully legalize marijuana. It would regulate and tax marijuana in the same manner as alcohol. Users would have to be 21 or older to buy or consume it.
“We need to face reality and say that people in our state use marijuana,” he said. “Do we want to make them criminals, do we want to force them to work with criminals, or is there a better path forward?”
Gateway drug or not?
Baumbach said opponents argue marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs. He disagrees.
“If you never entered the gate, then you haven’t gone through the gateway. And the gateway is the pusher. Right now we’ve decriminalized it, but to obtain marijuana you need to go to a criminal and buy it illegally,” he said.
Delaware decriminalized possession of up to an ounce in 2015.
“What the state has done with its policy is push marijuana users to work with the pusher. And a pusher most likely has other products like heroin and et cetera,” Baumbach said.
“We’re pushing Delawareans to be interacting with drug dealers. That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “My solution is we legalize access so that we go into a legal business, not to a drug pusher, to get your marijuana.”
Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network president Zoe Patchell said cannabis - the scientific name for marijuana - first became demonized during the 1930s when Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, began spreading propaganda. The Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 led to making cannabis illegal.
‘Satanic music,’ racism
Patchell quoted Anslinger’s decades-old testimony to Congress during a June 8 meeting at Legislative Hall in the support of House Bill 110.
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others,” Anslinger said.
According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, there were 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010 and 88 percent were for possession. The data revealed a trend that pointed to racial bias. Despite roughly equal rates of use, blacks were 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested.
This disparity caught the attention of University of Delaware student Dan Cole, 22, who’s white.
“There are a lot of people that are being incarcerated or, at least, harassed unnecessarily. And I think that it is a consequence that’s unfairly leveraged against minorities,” said Cole, of Newark, who’s in support of House Bill 110. “If I were arrested tomorrow, my life wouldn’t be over, because I have resources.
“I have the support of family. I have social resources and I could afford a lawyer. A lot of people can’t,” he said.
New UD graduate Nadia Cumming, 23, of Middletown, has dreams of becoming an English teacher at a time when Delaware’s facing almost $40 million in proposed cuts for education.
Cumming supports the full legalization of marijuana because “money for legalizing cannabis could be going toward education,” she said. Also, “cannabis arrests are just super high for minorities. It’s just absolutely ridiculous and I want to help.”
Emilio Nazario, 61, of Dover, is a father of three college graduates, husband and a retiree from the Air Force. He said cannabis is harmless and should be available to adults.
“I’ve gone and taken that extra step from being in the shadows as someone who supports it. Now I’m out here actually doing something about it,” said Nazario, who was at Legislative Hall June 8 to speak with a legislator about House Bill 110.
Delaware CAN secretary Maggie McDonald argued cannabis is a safer alternative to painkillers.
In 2011, Delaware legalized up to one ounce of marijuana for medicinal use. This includes treatment for patients with terminal illness, cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV and AIDS.
“I think it’s really important we end this stigma, we open the dialogue and we think about cannabis as aspirin, something that should be freely available,” said McDonald, a biochemist who graduated with a doctorate from the University of Delaware.
She said cannabis could help both alcoholics and opiate abusers to wean off and stay off hardcore drugs. McDonald also explained a person can’t die from a cannabis overdose and it doesn’t cause mental illness.
“It does not cause your body to shut down. It is not a poison,” she said. “Alcohol is a poison. You can literally die on the spot from an alcohol overdose. Heroin is just as terrible.”
Legal isn’t completely safe
Today 28 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use. Eight states, plus DC, have legalized it for recreational use, according to AARP. Legislators here have until the June 30 session deadline to vote on HB 110.
Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Dover South, doesn’t support House Bill 110. He said he’s concerned it would increase the number of underage individuals and impaired drivers, among other issues.
“It does not eliminate the black market,” Yearick said.
One of the biggest concerns legislators have with fully legalizing marijuana, in any state, is that it’s illegal federally.
“I am quite concerned about that,” Baumbach said. He said that during Prohibition in the 1920s, states began to legalize alcohol - although it was still illegal federally. Eventually the policy became unpopular enough around the country that Prohibition was repealed.
He said his hope is the same happens with marijuana.
Meanwhile, Delaware CAN attorney Tom Donovan said people shouldn’t be worried about getting arrested for marijuana possession if HB 110 passes because it’s “a low priority for the feds.”
Donovan basically said as long as a person avoids promoting the distribution of cannabis over state lines, “the federal government will not bother you.”
Nonetheless, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been vocal about trying to crack down on marijuana use. Sessions recently advocated going after those who use medical marijuana. Baumbach said this is ironic because “Trump argued for legalization” during his candidacy.
Fully legalizing marijuana stands to stimulate the state’s economy with $20 to $40 million annually from taxes, Baumbach said, though that wouldn’t put a big dent in the budget deficit the state faces.
He said it would take some time for marijuana businesses to get up and running until the state would see financial gain from the industry.
Yearick agreed. He said it could take two to five years for the state to see revenue from fully legalizing cannabis.
With the state’s ongoing heroin epidemic, Charles Gluck Jr., of Greenwood, would like to see cannabis legalized because he believes it would reduce that problem.
“There’s children watching their parents do [heroin] right in their homes,” Gluck said. “And [legislators] want to argue about cannabis, which is an exit drug? [It’d help] these people get off these addictive opiates and heroin, meth and things that are literally killing people.”