Delaware Senate approves marijuana legalization and regulation; all eyes now on staunch foe Gov. Carney

The governor vetoed the legalization measure last year and House members could not override his action last year. The governor won’t say what he’ll do now.

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A group of people supporting legalization of marijuana are gathered in the Delaware State Capitol.

Zoe Patchell (in front, wearing green shirt and holding sign), helped led a yearslong effort to legalize marijuana and create a regulated retail market. (Courtesy of Zoe Patchell)

With Tuesday’s historic Senate vote, for the first time both chambers of the Delaware Legislature have approved marijuana legalization and regulation, putting the ball firmly in the court of one fervent opponent, Gov. John Carney.

All eyes are on Carney to see whether he will again use his veto pen, as he did last year for the legalization bill, which removes all penalties for having less than an ounce. Currently, having less than an ounce is a $100 civil fine.

The House had passed that bill overwhelmingly last May but its attempt to override Carney’s veto with the required three-fifths majority failed in June when six lawmakers changed their yes votes to no.

The House had failed to approve the regulatory structure last May after a co-sponsor, Rep. Larry Mitchell, was reportedly ill and failed to vote though he was monitoring the meeting online. Mitchell lost his bid for re-election, however.

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Carney told WHYY News this month that he remains opposed to adult-use legalization, citing reports that use by minors increased in some other states that have legalized weed.

But the governor stopped short of saying whether he would veto either bill, and Tuesday, his spokesperson also demurred on legalization, which is House Bill 1, and regulation, which is House Bill 2.

“The governor continues to have strong concerns about the unintended consequences of legalizing marijuana for recreational use in our state, especially about the impacts on our young people and highway safety,’’ Emily Hershman said. “He knows others have honest disagreements on this issue. But we don’t have anything new to share today about how the governor will act on HB 1 and HB 2 if they reach his desk.”

Many advocates thought the years-long crusade to legalize weed was dead until Carney leaves office in January 2025. But the primary sponsor, Rep. Ed Osienski, resurrected the bills, buoyed by results of the 2022 elections that put more supporters in office.

Earlier this month, both Democrat-led measures sailed through the House with enough votes to override a veto.

The Senate did the same Tuesday.

Senators approved simple legalization with a party line 16-4 vote, with Republican Dave Wilson absent.

The marketplace bill, formally known as the Marijuana Control Act, passed 15-5, with Kent County Republican Dave Buckson, who had approved legalization, voting no on the regulatory part.

The regulatory measure puts a 15% tax on marijuana sales and also authorizes 30 retail store licenses, of which 15 would be reserved for “social equity applicants.”

The legislation defines social equity applicants as people who have lived for at least five years in an area “disproportionately impacted” by Delaware enforcement of marijuana laws, as well as those convicted for marijuana-related offenses, with some exceptions.

Should the regulatory bill become law, with or without Carney’s signature, no licenses would be issued for at least 16 months.

‘Like most people in this room, I might have tried marijuana’

Democratic Sen. Trey Paradee of the Dover area is the chief Senate sponsor of both measures, which have no Republican sponsors. Democrats control both chambers of the General Assembly.

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On Tuesday, Paradee exhorted colleagues to support legalization and regulation and enable Delaware to join the 21 other states that let residents have marijuana without fear of arrest or fine.

Paradee said during the 40-minute debate on legalization that New Jersey and Maryland are among the states where weed is legal, and predicted Pennsylvania will join their ranks in due time.

That would leave “Delaware to be on an island of prohibition amongst the sea of freedom and liberty,’’ Paradee said.

The senator emphasized that driving under the influence would still be illegal and enforced, but said he had no doubt that legalized marijuana won’t be a menace to the state. He noted that polls have consistently shown that a majority of residents approve legalization, and have since before legislation was introduced in 2015.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Delaware since 2011.

“Marijuana, by any measure, is far less harmful than alcohol, not as addictive as caffeine and nicotine, and does not cause anywhere near the harmful side effects and astronomical health-related costs and consequences of tobacco and nicotine products,’’ Paradee said.

Sen. Bryan Richardson, one of the 21-member Senate’s six Republicans, led the opposition on the floor.

He predicted legalization will do great harm to the state, by increasing car accidents and violence, exacerbating mental illness, and leading to more opioid addiction in a state reeling from overdose deaths.

“The legalization of recreational marijuana use is a serious topic that will [negatively] affect the lives and welfare of almost every Delawarean,’’ the Sussex County Republican said.

Moments before the vote, Richardson added that residents would ultimately regret legalization.

“There is harm. There is long-term harm,” he said. “There is going to be a lot of harm to the state of Delaware if this passes.”

Paradee scoffed at Richardson’s contention of increased violence from marijuana.

“Like most people in this room, I may have tried marijuana one or more times. And I have been in the company of folks who are under the influence of marijuana on one or more occasions,’’ he said. “And I have figured out what most of us in this room have figured out and what most Delawareans understand.

“When you have a group of young people who are drinking alcohol, what tends to happen? They got to go out and find the next big party. They got to go to the next bar. And that’s when problems tend to happen.

“When people are smoking marijuana, they tend to relax, they tend to chill out. They want to stay home. They want to turn on Netflix and order a pizza, eat some brownies or some Doritos or something. They’re not going out and terrorizing the highway.”

After the vote, Zoe Patchell of the Cannabis Advocacy Network couldn’t contain her glee. She had been crestfallen last year when the measure advanced but once again failed.

She hopes Carney listens to lawmakers and residents and ends what she calls a failed criminal justice policy.

“Today was an absolutely historic day for Delaware,’’ Patchell said. “The General Assembly sent a strong message by passing legislation with an overwhelming supermajority.

“We’re hoping that the governor adheres to the will of the people that support this with an overwhelming majority across the political spectrum and at the very least allows the legislation to go into law.”

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