Former top cop and corrections chief poised to become Delaware’s 1st weed czar

Marijuana legalization foe Gov. Carney adopted an “old-fashioned’’ approach by naming a law enforcement veteran to regulate the new legal industry.

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Headshot of Rob Coupe

Former top cop Rob Coupe will have the responsibility of issuing 125 cannabis licenses. (State of Delaware)

Rob Coupe has been a leader of law enforcement in Delaware for the last 15 years.

He led the state police, Department of Correction, Department of Safety and Homeland Security, and was chief of staff for Attorney General Kathy Jennings. Currently, Coupe heads the state Department of Technology and Information.

Now, Gov. John Carney has tapped 60-year-old Coupe to oversee and regulate an industry Carney vehemently opposed in Delaware: legalized recreational marijuana.

Carney nominated Coupe as the state’s first marijuana commissioner earlier this month, and officials and observers say he’ll sail through a Senate confirmation hearing today.

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“As I’ve said before, there are few people across our state who are more well-respected and more committed to serving the people of Delaware, than Rob Coupe,” Carney said in a statement when he nominated Coupe. “He’s exactly the right person to take on this new challenge.”

Gov. John Carney addressing a crowd with a microphone
Gov. John Carney, a staunch legalization foe, spoke to residents about his opposition during a Town Hall meeting in April. (State of Delaware)

Carney successfully vetoed a bill to legalize weed and create a regulated retail market last year. But in April, with a looming veto override by a more progressive General Assembly, Carney let a legalization bill become law without his signature, and did the same with one to create a regulated retail market.

Coupe told WHYY News it “would be premature” to comment on his nomination. But State Rep. Ed Osienski, who sponsored both marijuana bills, endorsed Coupe for the post that will be part of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security — a department that Coupe headed for more than three years until March 2020.

The so-called “weed czar” will hire a staff to run an oversight office that will create copious regulations to govern growing, manufacturing, testing, and retail industries for marijuana. Starting next fall, the commissioner must begin the process of issuing 125 licenses for the marijuana market.

Here’s how the licenses will be allocated:

  • 60 for indoor and outdoor growing operations.
  • 30 for businesses that manufacture gummies, candies, oils, and other non-leaf products.
  • 30 for retailers.
  • Five for testers that must ensure quality and accuracy of products and labeling.

“Nobody has any more experience operating divisions under Homeland Security than Mr. Coupe does,’’ Osienski said. “So I think he was a good pick to get that work done.”

Osienski said one major factor is “who he picks as deputy director and other hires for the staff that may have some experience or knowledge in the industry. So that’s yet to be seen.”

He also said he has offered his assistance to Coupe, who responded that he “definitely would be reaching out to me so we can go over everything and he can get a better understanding of what my intent was’’ with the 45-page bill to create the retail market.

Osienski said Coupe’s challenges include understanding the new law and “propagating those regulations to come up with the best fair process of accepting applications and issuing licenses.”

Osienski thinks the new office could benefit from Coupe’s experience in policing since one of its goals is to eradicate the illegal market.

Headshot of Ed Osienski
State Rep. Ed Osienski said Coupe’s police background will help but he needs to appoint aides with relevant experience. (State of Delaware)

“One of the jobs that they are tasked with is making sure once we have this legal market set up, that the illegal market is done away with,’’ Osienski said. “So I think having somebody that has a background in enforcement would help along those lines.”

The lawmaker also pointed out that Coupe, who began his policing career in 1985, has avoided controversy in high-pressure posts.

“He does a good job in any position he’s been assigned to,’’ Osienski said. “There’s been no drama or issues.”

Having ex-cop as weed czar has ‘benefits but also drawbacks’

Zoe Patchell of the Cannabis Advocacy Network of Delaware said she and others in her group are eager to meet with Coupe to “discuss regulations and weigh in, as stakeholders, on how to implement Delaware’s adult-use cannabis market.”

“Our concerns continue to be focused on creating a fair, equitable, competitive, and consumer friendly market that accomplishes the goals and intent that were written into the legislation.“

Peter Murphy, a Wilmington lawyer who has advised clients in Delaware’s longstanding medical marijuana market, as well as cannabis entrepreneurs in other states, said Carney has followed the “old-fashioned’’ model of naming someone with a law enforcement background to oversee his state’s weed industry.

Having a top regulator with a policing background was once “a common approach where we saw medical cannabis being legalized state by state. And it was based on the concerns of diversion and the amount of cash on hand, because it was almost exclusively a cash business,’’ Murphy said. “So you had this focus on diversion and dispensaries being possible targets for robbery or burglary.”

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That approach “does have benefits, but also has some drawbacks,’’ Murphy said. “It clearly prioritizes security and public safety concerns, possibly at the the expense of economic development or social justice.”

Rob Coupe in uniform as a State Trooper
Coupe began as a state trooper and led the state’s largest police agency from 2009 to 2012. (State of Delaware)

The new law calls for the commissioner to issue a total of 47 social equity licenses to people who have lived in areas “disproportionately impacted’’ by marijuana prohibition and enforcement, or were convicted of lower-level marijuana crimes.

“In the last five years, cannabis licensing and regulation has shifted toward more social justice concerns,’’ Murphy said.

In addition, those who received licenses often had a law enforcement background. This was the case in Delaware, where the first medical marijuana licensee was a former state trooper.

But the industry and the times have changed, Murphy said, and many states including Delaware now focus “on the fact that prohibition has harmed certain minority communities more than others. And as a result, we need to provide opportunities for those most negatively affected. So with that change, it definitely puts a different lens on having a law enforcement professional at running a program.”

Coupe could be confirmed as early as today. His nomination is scheduled to be discussed at the Senate Executive Committee’s meeting at 2 p.m., likely followed by a vote in the full Senate.

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