Gov. Carney hosts second marijuana town hall

 (Zoë Read/WHYY)

(Zoë Read/WHYY)

The debate on marijuana legalization in Delaware continued on Thursday night during a town hall hosted by Gov. John Carney, D-Delaware.

The round table discussion featuring opponents of legislation to legalize cannabis was Carney’s second town hall focused on the topic.

In April, he listened to proponents of the bill—and when an attendant of that event suggested hosting an opposition discussion, the Governor obliged.  

“I’m here to listen,” he told constituents on Thursday. “My position has been one that we should do this slowly.”

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Delaware already allows medical cannabis and has decriminalization laws.  But it could be the 9th state to approve recreational use for those over 21 if pending legislation introduced by State Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, and State Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, passes in the General Assembly.

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.

Throughout his campaign last year, Carney said while he favored decriminalization and medical marijuana, he was against legalization for recreational use. He has since listened to opinions on both sides of the aisle and has had conversations with the Governors of Colorado and Washington, which have legalized marijuana.

On Thursday, he said he wouldn’t speculate on what he would do if the bill hit his table.

“I’ve always said we ought to look at the experiences of the states of Colorado and Washington, to see what their experience has been,” Carney said.

“We ought to try and get the facts, and there is a difference of opinion on those facts. We ought to at least to try to get a set of facts we can debate this issue on.”

He also made it clear legalizing marijuana would not address the state’s budget deficit crisis, as some have suggested.

“We should not and I will not think of this in the context of our current budget difficulties,” Carney said.

Thursday’s panellists included representatives from the Medical Society of Delaware, AAA Mid-Atlantic, aTAck Addiction and the Police Chief’s Council—all opposed to legalization.

The opponents said legalization would make roads more dangerous, have adverse health effects on Delawareans and lead residents toward a path of addiction.  

“Do we really want our entire country stoned? It sounds funny until we think about it,” said Bill Lynch of aTAck Addiction. “In a risks versus benefits world, legalization is not a risk worth taking.”

They also pointed to states like Colorado, where they say crime, accidents and emergency room visits have increased since legalizing marijuana.

“If we’re passing the law because people should have the freedom to do what they want with their bodies where do we stop?” said Jeffrey Horvath of the Police Chief’s Council. “If we do it for revenue, do we do it at the risk of public safety? [Legalization] will not make Delaware a safer and better place to live.”

During the event, Keeley promised to address those concerns in her bill. She said she believes creating a task force and not allowing individuals to grow their own marijuana will prevent some of the downfalls that occurred in Colorado.

“I don’t think I’m going to change anyone’s mind today. If I can make them feel a bit more comfortable that’s what I want to do, and I think that’s what a good legislator does, is calm nerves,” Keeley said. “I do want people to know I hear your concerns and we’re addressing every one we possibly can.”

Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, who is co-sponsoring the bill, said he believes a lot of statistics offered by opponents are inconclusive and unreliable.

“We sort of need to have a truth clearing house in Delaware on this issue, and I’m hopeful we can make good progress on that,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of loose data, loose science, being used. There is good marijuana data we should be using.”

Thursday’s event was not as well attended as the pro-pot town hall, which drew about 100 people. However, several opponents voiced their concerns about the bill.

Garth Van Meter of Alexandria, Va., a member of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said he abused pot as a young adult.

“My entire life revolved around my use of marijuana. I had physical withdrawal symptoms for several weeks,” he said. “This ultimately isn’t about social justice, it’s about profit from addiction.”

Don and Jeanne Keister said their son Tyler, who lost his battle with opioid addition, began his path of addiction with marijuana. They also expressed other concerns about legalization.

“I just want Delaware to be safe, the citizens to be safe and the kids to be safe. I work in a school, and we don’t want them to feel like it’s okay to do marijuana because it’s legal,” said Don Keister, also of aTAck Addiction.

“We’re going to have marijuana shops up and down the state, people are going to smoke it in public, families are going to bring their kids to the beach to see everyone running around with marijuana. When adolescents see it as not being harmful they’re going to use it, just like alcohol.”

Those in favor of legalization also attended the event. Advocates 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.

They say criminalizing marijuana is just as ineffective as alcohol prohibition was, creates a dangerous illicit market, and causes unnecessary arrests of non-violent criminals.

Statistics also show blacks are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.

“We share all the same concerns as you. We too want safe roads, we too want safe vehicular operation. However, I feel prohibition of cannabis is the cause of this harm,” said John Sybird of Ocean View.

“An untaxed, unregulated market is a drug dealer’s best option. Let’s take the millions away from that market and make Delaware safer. Leaving it unregulated and untaxed in the hands of drug dealers is the worst thing we can do for our children.”

The legislation was released from committee in May, however, sponsors say it’s likely it won’t be voted on until next year.  

“Given we’re already now in June, I’d say it’s going to be harder to expect it to pass in the House and Senate by June 30th. I’m going to say it may not be a bad thing, because I think the Governor, if it was passed by June 30th, if I were to read tea leaves, I would say it’s not likely to pass his desk,” Baumbach said.

“So maybe more time is needed to help share the facts with the Governor, as he requested today. If I was a betting man I wouldn’t put a lot of money on [the bill] passing the Senate by June 30th.”

He said he and the other sponsors will ensure the law, if passed, will be tightly regulated.

“I think the concerns the opponents raised are the same as the concerns the supporters have. We don’t want one more minor to get marijuana. They’re getting some today, they will get some after [the bill] passes. But [the bill] will not increase that chance, and we need to make sure those safeguards are in there, and Rep. Keeley and Sen. Henry and I are working hard to make sure we have those protections,” Baumbach said. 

“This is not a legalize marijuana bill—this is a legalize and regulate with protections, and tax bill. Alcohol is legal and it’s dangerous, which is why we also make sure we protect how alcohol is used. We should do the same with marijuana.”

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