Delaware lawmakers introduce recreational marijuana bill

 State Rep. Helene Keeley talks about the bill to legalize recreational marijuana joined by State Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, Public Defender Brendan O'Neill and State Rep. Paul Baumbach. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

State Rep. Helene Keeley talks about the bill to legalize recreational marijuana joined by State Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, Public Defender Brendan O'Neill and State Rep. Paul Baumbach. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

The Delaware Marijuana Control Act would treat marijuana much like alcohol is currently regulated in the state. 

More than 14 lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle, have signed on to sponsor HB 110 which would legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Delaware would become the ninth state to allow marijuana to be used for recreation.

State Rep. Helene Keeley, D- Wilmington South, compares the measure to repealing prohibition.”I think society as a whole understands that a lot of people at the end of the day, instead of going home and having a glass of wine, go home and enjoy marijuana, and it’s just the reality,” Keeley said during a news conference in Legislative Hall in Dover Thursday afternoon. 

The law would allow retail stores to sell pot with a $50 per ounce tax on all marijuana flowers and a $15 per ounce tax on all other parts of the plant. Immature marijuana plants would carry a $15 tax. Retail stores, testing facilities, cultivators and manufacturers would pay a license application fee of up to $5,000, plus a $10,000 biennial fee for each license.

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Keeley quoted estimates from the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. which showed the state could collect $22 million from pot sales in the first taxable year. 

That money would go first to fund administration costs of a marijuana commissioners office, which would regulate, license and tax all aspects of the industry. For the remaining money, 20 percent would go to Delaware schools, with another 30-percent earmarked for specific programs including drug rehab, reentry programs for recently released prisoners, and education efforts on the dangers of drug abuse.

State Sen. Margaret Rose Henry has long been an advocate for legalizing marijuana, but she says her efforts are focused on the social justice aspects of Delaware’s marijuana laws. “There’s a disproportionate number of African Americans who are arrested for possession of marijuana,” Henry said. “I, as an African American, see this as a social justice issue- an equalizer, if you will- so that anyone who is of age 21 should be able to possess and smoke marijuana in the privacy of their own home.” 

State Rep. Paul Baumbach, D- Newark, addressed critics who claim legalizing marijuana is a gateway to more dangerous drugs. “This is only a gateway if we force the people who use marijuana to go to the same people that are pushing the illegal drugs,” Baumbach said. “If we bring this out to the light of day, not only do we prevent the people who use marijuana from speaking to the people who are selling the drugs, but we also are bringing all the producers of marijuana into the system.”

Delaware Governor John Carney is on the record against legalizing marijuana. Earlier this year he said there’s too many negative effects from marijuana, adding that he wants to see more evidence from how it has been implemented in other states. If lawmakers were able to gain enough support to approve the measure, it’s not clear whether Carney would veto the bill. It would take a three-fifths vote to override a possible veto, and Keeley said she believes the votes would be there. “I feel confident that we can get it,” Keeley said.

The legislation would not allow marijuana use in public places. It also wouldn’t prevent any employer from drug testing employees or job applicants. Residents would not be allowed to grow their own marijuana or create marijuana byproducts on their own. 

In 2011, Delaware lawmakers approved medical marijuana, but because of delays in implementation under the Jack Markell administration, only one dispensary has opened. That facility, operated by the First State Compassion Center in Wilmington, has been serving the entire state’s medical marijuana users. A second facility, also run by FSCC, will open later this year in Lewes in southern Delaware. A third dispensary is planned for Dover. A group called Columbia Care will operate that facility in central Delaware. They hope to open their doors in the second half of 2017.

In 2015, lawmakers approved a bill that decriminalized the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. That legislation took effect in December of 2015 and was seen by recreational marijuana advocates as a key step towards full legalization. 

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