Legal weed bill is back in Delaware, and a battle is brewing

Sarah Gamard
The News Journal

Delaware lawmakers have fired up the fight to legalize pot.

It's good news for pro-ganja Delawareans, many of whom hope that recreational use of the plant could turn into a tax cash cow. 

But it's unclear whether the proposal has more support than when it failed last year. Like gun control, the issue is one of most contentious at the state Capitol, where on Thursday some were already voicing opposition before having read the bill.

There are signs that the bill could get more traction this year than last year. The General Assembly had a turnover of about one-third — with many younger than the people they replaced — and Democrats now have their largest majority in over a decade. Lawmakers have also tweaked the bill since last year in an attempt to make it more palatable.

But so far, powerful groups across the state, including some in the health care industry and law enforcement, still oppose it.

Ten states and the District of Columbia have already legalized marijuana for recreational use as of December, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Recent attempts to do it in New Jersey and New York failed. Some in the First State worry there's not enough research about pot's long-term effects on the body or downstream issues like driving or working under the influence.

Delaware's latest attempt before this one failed by four votes in the House. Two of the leaders of last year's effort, then-Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, and then-Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, have since retired.

Then-House co-sponsor and now-Sen. Trey Paradee, D-Dover, is now sponsoring the bill with Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark.

"If we had a referendum process in this state, it probably would have passed three or four years ago," Paradee said. "People are becoming more accepting of it, and understand that, in a lot of ways, alcohol and cigarettes are far more dangerous.”

What would recreational use look like?

You'd be able to buy it in specialized stores  — up to an ounce at a time — as long as you're at least 21 years old. 

You still wouldn't be able to grow marijuana at home, according to the bill. You also wouldn't be able to consume it in public or in the car.

A new medical marijuana dispensary in Newark makes the process as easy as possible.

Municipalities would be able to decide if they want the plant to be sold in their jurisdiction. Employers and some residential property owners could also decide not to allow recreational use.

Beyond buying and selling, the bill would also allow people to have prior marijuana offenses cleared from their record if they don't have any convictions for violent felonies.

Delaware would tax the drug at 15 percent, under the current draft of the bill, which could raise millions in taxes.

Those behind the legislation could not estimate on Thursday how much retailers would charge. Colorado charges about $80 for a quarter ounce, users say. They hope that the product would be affordable enough to encourage people to buy from retail stores instead of illegally.

Supporters also hope that consumers will be enticed by what they argue is a safer product. It would be sold in opaque, child-resistant packaging with a warning label.

The sponsors said Thursday they don't know yet how much revenue it would generate, or how much any added law enforcement would cost. Last year supporters said legalization would raise more than $20 million in taxes and the current estimate ranges from $9 million to $50 million.

California, for example, earned far less than anticipated in revenue, while legalization leader Colorado earned far more. Analysts attribute the difference in part to a persistent black market, where prices can be lower.

Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark (left), and Sen. Trey Paradee, D-Dover, field questions from reporters on Thursday about their recently filed bill that would legalize recreational use of marijuana in Delaware.

But some argue that Delaware would be at a competitive advantage if it becomes one of the first in the region to legalize and tax the drug. The state essentially would be in a race with New Jersey to do it first. Pennsylvania officials also have talked about legalizing pot.

Supporters of legalization say it could benefit agriculture workers across the state. Paradee thinks farmers would likely find opportunities in growing cannabis for concentrates — especially if they grow it outdoors.

An uphill battle

The Medical Society of Delaware wants further research on the drug before making it more accessible, and the Delaware Healthcare Association feels similarly.

"There's simply not enough known," said Delaware Healthcare Association President and CEO Wayne Smith. "It makes it a big medical uncertainty." 

Wayne Smith, president and CEO of Delaware Healthcare Association

Some are worried about how to ensure that workers are not impaired on the job.

Patrick Ogden, chairman of the Police Chiefs Council, worries about increases in impaired driving leading to more fatal car crashes. He's also one of many who doesn't expect the black market to go away.

"The illegal market, their THC level is higher and people are going for the illegal amount versus the legal amount, because you can get higher," Ogden said. "Once you take it out of its original packaging, we wouldn't be able to tell if it was sold legally or on the black market."

Chief Patrick Ogden, University Public Safety.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police hadn't taken a public stance on marijuana legalization, but the Delaware State Troopers Association is against legalization.

Proponents are hopeful that lawmakers will be swayed by public polling that indicates most residents favor recreational use. It's the same kind of argument that pro-gun control advocates used before three of their favored bills failed to make it to a floor vote last week.

Among those who would have to be swayed is Gov. John Carney, who has the final say as to whether a bill becomes law.

Carney opposed the measure last year and recently signed legislation that will raise the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. Marijuana legalization could be inconsistent with that public health message, a spokesman said earlier this year.

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Recreational use isn't the only change that could come to Delaware

While recreational legalization is uncertain, other changes to Delaware's cannabis laws could be coming.

For example, the same day that lawmakers introduced this year's bill to legalize recreational use, the House unanimously passed a medical marijuana bill by Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle.

This bill would allow children to get marijuana oil to treat a rare disorder that can cause unremitting headaches for days at a time. The disorder can affect children as young as 6 years old, according to those behind the legislation.

Under another bill, doctors could get wider discretion to recommend marijuana to patients. Sen. Anthony Delcollo, R-Elsmere, also has legislation that would allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to OK its use. 

Sen. Anthony Delcollo during the last day of session at Legislative Hall in Dover.

Delcollo's legislation would let a physician recommend the substance if it would "likely provide a therapeutic or palliative benefit," instead of being limited to specific symptoms like pain control. Patients under 18 years old still would only be able to receive marijuana oil.

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