Delaware marijuana legalization bill approved by committee

 Zoë Patchell of the Cannabis Bureau of Delaware testifies in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana in front of a House committee on Wednesday. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

Zoë Patchell of the Cannabis Bureau of Delaware testifies in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana in front of a House committee on Wednesday. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

A Delaware state House committee has released legislation to legalize marijuana.

Delaware took another step toward becoming the ninth state to approve recreational marijuana up to an ounce for those over 21.

The General Assembly’s House Revenue and Finance Committee voted 10-2 Wednesday to release legislation to legalize recreational cannabis.

However, it could take much longer to get a full House vote, as the bill’s sponsors work to improve the legislation over the next several weeks.

“I want to get as many people at the table so we’re not going back and piece-mealing changes to the bill, and going back and fixing things that may arise after the bill is signed into law that Colorado had to do once it was started,” said Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington.

The law as written would regulate and tax cannabis much like alcohol. Individuals would be prohibited from operating a vehicle under the influence, carrying it across state borders and growing or creating products on their own, and companies would still be allowed to drug test employees.

During the two-hour meeting Wednesday, advocates for legalization, including residents, medical marijuana patients and attorneys voiced their support of the bill.

They say cannabis is significantly safer than alcohol and tobacco, has medical benefits, creates jobs and boosts the economy. Legalization in Delaware also would bring in an estimated $22 million in taxable revenue, advocates say. Keeley’s legislation would tax marijuana at $50 and it would cost buyers about $200.

Proponents argue criminalizing marijuana is just as ineffective as alcohol prohibition was, creates a dangerous illicit market and causes unnecessary arrests of non-violent offenders, often with a racial bias.

“The cannabis industry, all the jobs, and the large consumer base for this non-toxic plant already exist here in Delaware, regardless of the legality of this plant,” said Zoë Patchell of the Cannabis Bureau of Delaware. 

“But rather, the question before you is, ‘who should control this profitable cash crop?’ And, ‘which market will benefit from the proceeds and jobs?’ The dangerous, violently territorial, criminal market, which creates crime and violence? Or the State, and law abiding business owners, which will create jobs and revenue for Delaware” 

Medical patients expressed how marijuana has improved their health, and said there’s a need for better access, while business leaders professed how legalization would be profitable.

“Delaware needs new business and economic development. Many corporations are downsizing or leaving the state. Small businesses and startups are now more important than ever,” said businessman Brian Yerger. “A regulated market can bring in revenue, reduce crime and provide economic opportunities to the state.”

However, just as many opponents, including residents, faith leaders, law enforcement and health experts voiced their concerns about health risks, driving while high and regulation concerns.

State Rep. Lyndon Yearick, D-Dover, who voted against releasing the bill, expressed concerns about increased drug use among youth, and how it would affect business policies of no tolerance.

“Once we cross this threshold there’s no turning back,” he said.

Prayus Tailor, president of the Medical Society of Delaware, said the group is neutral on the issue of medical marijuana, but is opposed to legalizing recreational pot due to the “risk of adverse health and safety concerns.”

“Reliable clinical data to support recreational use is essentially nonexistent,” he said.  

Cathy Rossi of AAA-Mid Atlantic testified that of all the DUI blood samples tested for drugs in Delaware in 2016 more than half screened positive for cannabinoids. She also voiced concern there’s no way to measure impairment from marijuana.

“We know marijuana use will only increase after legalization. People will drive high. Some will be impaired some won’t be impaired. But they’ll think they can drive, and they can’t,” Rossi said.

“Right now, we have no current roadside test for marijuana impairment. Unlike alcohol, which is water soluble and can be tested and measured in the blood, impairment for marijuana goes to fatty tissues in the brain, which we can’t measure. Marijuana that we would find in bodily fluids such as blood, saliva and urine, is not an indication of impairment. It’s an indication of presence of the drug which may or may not indicate impairment in individuals.”

Keeley said one of her amendments to the bill will ensure law enforcement have the tools they need to identify drivers under the influence.

“Coming from someone who has sponsored nearly every driving under the influence bill, my commitment is still there,” she said.

Those in favor of the legislation dismissed some of the statistics reported by opponents.  

“The testimony offered by AAA defines the concept of alternative facts,” said State Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark. “That statistic does not do anything but attempt to persuade us cannabis is the guilty party here. You have to look within yourself, what is being presented here accurately without a hidden agenda?”

Medical marijuana patient Rich Jester also expressed distaste for AAA’s data.

“I found it offensive and dishonest. Allowing this type of public spectacle is an insult to medical marijuana patients in Delaware,” he said. “[Medical marijuana patients] remain high productive members of society without causing carnage on our roads.”

Recreational user and retired union carpenter John Peters also stepped up to the podium to debunk statements that using pot is dangerous.

“Some of this trim work in this building—I did that. When I did that I was consuming cannabis,” he said. “I’m retired. I did my job, and I did it while I was consuming cannabis.”

Opponents also testified the illicit market has not decreased in states that have legalized marijuana. However, Keeley’s legislation does not allow individuals to grow their own pot—something no other state has in their legalization laws.  

“I know many of the advocates are not happy that’s not in this bill, to grow your own,” she said. “I believe that will diminish the black market, because anything grown in this state must go through the regulatory process.”

Representative Jeff Spiegelman, R-Clayton, said he’s still on the fence about legalization because both sides present strong arguments.  

“For every stat there’s a counter stat, for every story there’s a counter story,” he said. “I’m very happy to vote this bill out of committee…I’m going to vote yes to let it out, but I’m leery of voting yes on the House floor.”

Keeley said the bill won’t be voted on until at least June so she can make amendments that address concerns.

“I want to solve as many issues up front as much as I can so when the first door opens for sale of legalized recreational marijuana we don’t have a bumpy road,” she said.

Throughout his campaign, Gov. John Carney, D-Delaware said he wasn’t on board with legalization. However, he’s since met with advocates to hear their point of view. Carney has not stated if he will support the bill if it lands on his desk.

Keeley said she’s confident the bill will pass in the House. However, she said she’s not concerned if the bill takes longer than this session to get through the process.

“My first and foremost responsibility is the budget of this fiscal year. It doesn’t mean other bills can’t work simultaneously with the budget,” Keeley said. “We have to operate as a state. I don’t want this bill to get in the way of that. I’m still going to work to secure my vote so it can get it passed in the House.”

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