The Delaware House took a historic step toward legalizing marijuana Thursday by approving a bill that strips all penalties from possessing less than an ounce.
Criminal penalties for having less than 28 grams of weed were removed in 2015 but under current law someone with up to 28 grams of weed gets a ticket and a $100 fine.
The measure that passed the House would remove the fine for people 21 and older. The Democrat-led body passed it by a 26-14 vote, with one lawmaker absent. Three Republicans who had been on the fence voted yes.
Rep. Ed Osienski, the lead House sponsor, predicts the bill will pass the Senate, where five of the 21 members are already are co-sponsors and Democrats control the chamber by a 14-7 margin. Only 11 votes are needed in the Senate.
The support of House Republicans Mike Ramone, Jeff Spiegelman and Mike Smith surprised and pleased Zoë Patchell of the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network.
“We just got three Republicans,’’ Patchell gushed minutes after witnessing the vote from the House gallery.
That’s critical in the numbers game, she noted. Should Gov. John Carney opposes legalization and should he veto the bill, the 26 yes votes in the House are one more than needed to override a veto.
“Today’s outcome has been a very long time in the making,’’ Patchell said. “I mean, this is an absolutely historic day for Delaware that we finally took one step forward toward restoring the rights and freedoms for otherwise law-abiding adults who possess cannabis, which is conduct that’s now legal in 18 states and D.C.”
Carney’s office did not respond to a request Thursday for comment on the legalization measure. He has been a steadfast opponent of legalization efforts.
Osienski summarized what the bill does in a brief address to House colleagues before the vote.
“This bill ends over 50 years of prohibition and criminalization in Delaware,’’ he said, “and allows adults over the age of 21 to legally possess, consume and freely share under one ounce of marijuana for personal use.”
After the vote, as many in the chamber clapped and chortled, Ramone quipped that maybe some samples had made their way into Legislative Hall.
Companion bill would create tax, regulatory structure
The legalization measure is a companion piece to another bill that would create a tax and regulatory structure for vendors to grow and sell weed. A vote on that piece is expected in the coming weeks.
That bill has cleared a House committee but no vote has been scheduled yet. That bill requires a three-fifths majority because it includes a 15% tax on all sales for recreational use. Medical marijuana would not be taxed.
Legalization and regulation had been bundled together in the same bill for the last six years. The latest effort to pass them in one bill failed by two votes in the House in March.
So Osienski, a Newark-area Democrat, split the bill into two measures.
The effect was that the bill which removed all penalties only needed a simple majority, which according to House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf virtually assured its passage. Schwarzkopf, a Rehoboth Beach Democrat and retired state police captain, has long opposed legalization.
“I know it’s coming,’’ Schwartzkopf told WHYY News in April.
Osienski believes that once legalization passes, there will be enough leverage on reluctant lawmakers to get the regulatory framework approved.
Schwarzkopf said he tended to agree and was inclined to support the taxation on sales at retail centers.
“If you’re going to tell me that marijuana is legal and come back at a later date at some other point in time to me and say, ‘Well, it’s legal, Will you tax it?’ My vote’s probably going to be yes,” Schwarzkopf said in April.
“Schwartzkopf joined Rep. William Bush of Dover as the only Democrats to oppose the legalization bill Thursday. Democratic Rep. Stephanie Bolden of Wilmington was absent and did not vote.”
Patchell said she’s going to keep fighting for the second bill.
The bottom line, she said, is that Delaware can’t afford to keep penalties in place and punish people, even with a fine, for having a small amount of marijuana.
“Cannabis prohibition comes with a significant human and economic cost,’’ she said, citing state statistics that show an average of 100 people receive a ticket and a $100 fine every week for simple possession.
Those tickets represent more than half of all drug offenses in Delaware, Patchell said.
“That is a significant waste of resources and law enforcement time, that is being diverted away from real crime with actual victims,’’ she said.
She also pointed out that neighboring New Jersey opened retail marijuana outlets last month and had $1.9 million in sales on the first day of operations.
“With legal cannabis sales just a short drive away for most Delawareans, it is simply unjust, illogical, and fiscally irresponsible to continue to enforce this failed, costly policy and ruin people’s lives,” she said.