Legal marijuana in Delaware? Why there is renewed optimism it might happen
Lawmakers on Thursday filed the latest bill to legalize marijuana in Delaware, with more pressure on the General Assembly to pass it than ever before as neighboring states move to also legalize it and advocates cite the need for job growth during the pandemic.
House Bill 150 by Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark, would let people 21 years or older buy up to an ounce of weed from a licensed seller.
The bill would tax the plant at 15%, which is lower than that of most states that have legalized marijuana. Lawmakers want Delaware to be competitive with other nearby states, such as New Jersey, and cut down on illegal sales.
It's unclear how much money the measure would bring in, and whether it would pass the Legislature and be signed by Gov. John Carney.
The bill's backers stress that the proposal is not meant to be a "money-maker" for state government, though it would certainly help the state's coffers with new revenue after it saw a major drop last year due to the pandemic.
The tax revenues from legal weed would not be put toward a specific interest, according to the bill. Its sponsors stress that marijuana revenues are not a stable revenue source, especially as neighboring states as increasingly looking to legalize and tax sales.
A January report from State Auditor Kathy McGuiness' office estimated that Delaware would bring in $43 million a year from legal weed, but that report was published before this year's legal weed bill was finalized.
Lawmakers have been perennially unsuccessful in the fight to legalize weed in Delaware, but more pressure is on the state than ever before after New Jersey voters legalized it through a ballot initiative in the November election.
It is now legal to possess marijuana in New Jersey, but you can't yet buy it there because dispensaries have not opened.
Marijuana proponents warn that Delaware residents will only end up driving across the bridge and funneling tax revenue to the state next door just to consume the drug illegally at home.
Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York officials are considering following suit, too. The District of Columbia is the other closest jurisdiction where it is legal.
"The only reasonable conclusion is that we need to do it now," said Sen. Trey Paradee, D-Dover, one of the bill's sponsors, during a press conference with reporters on Zoom shortly before the bill was filed.
Paradee cited polls that show the majority of residents support legal weed, and said voters would have probably already legalized the plant if they were given a ballot initiative such as in New Jersey.
Proponents of the Delaware bill argue that it would create much-needed jobs as the state's private sector struggles to dig itself out of the pandemic's economic downturn.
Previous legal weed bills have been just a few votes shy of passing the House. Osienski and Paradee both said on Thursday that they are “confident” that they’ll have enough support this time. After the November election, Democrats now hold a three-fifths majority in both chambers.
It’s unclear whether Gov. John Carney, who has split from most of his party on this issue by not supporting legal weed, would sign the bill into law if the General Assembly passed it. The governor's position against legal weed hasn't changed, a spokesman said on Thursday.
Pro-weed lawmakers on Thursday were not deterred.
“He has said that he's not supportive of it, but he's never said that he would veto it,” Paradee said.
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How the law would work
The bill would allow for up to 30 cannabis retailers within the first 16 months after it becomes law.
Half of those retail licenses would be given to so-called social equity applicants who have been affected by marijuana law enforcement in the past.
The bill would create a special licensing pool for social equity applicants to set up stores and manufacturing facilities in Delaware.
This applicant pool would be limited to those who either live in an area disproportionately affected by marijuana-related arrests and convictions or have been convicted of a marijuana-related offense, not including sale to a minor. Children and spouses of people convicted of offenses could also apply.
It's unclear which areas would qualify for the special licenses. The state would use arrest and criminal data to determine which areas qualify, Osienski said.
The bill also would let most people with marijuana convictions apply to get those offenses expunged. It would apply to any convictions that were previously a crime but would be legal if the bill becomes law, such as possession and sale.
It would still be illegal to drive when under the influence of marijuana, and people wouldn't be able to have the plant in the car unless it's in sealed packaging.
Police would enforce DUI laws just like they do now, according to the bill.
It would also be illegal to consume marijuana in public, and private property owners would be able to ban the drug from their premises, such as landlords. Employers could still fire employees for being high at work, and they could administer drug tests for check for marijuana in people's system.
Towns would be able to ban marijuana businesses or limit sales on Sundays. People would not be allowed to grow their own marijuana at home.
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Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.