Marijuana advocates celebrate ‘decrim day’ in Delaware

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(FILE/WHYY)

(FILE/WHYY)

Delaware police will no longer arrest those possessing 1 oz. or less of marijuana.

First things first: marijuana is still illegal in Delaware. However, possessing small amounts is no longer an offense that will result in jail time.

In June, Gov. Jack Markell, D-Delaware, signed the decriminalization law that is now in effect.  At that time, Markell’s office issued the following statement on the new law: “The Governor remains committed to reducing the number of people entering the criminal justice system and refocusing resources where they are needed most, and House Bill 39 supports these efforts.”

The legislation doesn’t apply to children under 18, who still will face a judge and be subjected to a range of punishments from a slap on the wrist to going to juvenile detention for six months. Adults between the age of 18 and 21 will receive a civil penalty on a first violation but face criminal penalties on a second violation.

For marijuana advocates, decriminalizing marijuana possession is a key step in their ultimate goal of legalization.

“It’s definitely a milestone,” said Cynthia Ferguson, executive director of the Delaware chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Prior to this law taking effect, small marijuana possession could lead to a misdemeanor charge which stained a violator’s record forever. “Having things on your record, especially drug things, limits your ability to go to school and get student loans. It limits your ability to get certain jobs.”

For members of Delaware’s NORML chapter, decriminalization is only step two in what they hope will be a three step process. “Two down, one to go,” said Ferguson. “We’ve got medical [marijuana], we’ve got decrim now, so all we need is full-on legalization, tax and regulate.”

Ferguson said because of Gov. Markell’s opposition, they don’t expect full legalization until he leaves office at the end of 2016. She’s optimistic that Delaware’s next governor will be more open to legalizing marijuana after seeing how its worked in other states. “It seems that Delaware takes a wait and see attitude, which you can’t blame them really. There’s other states that are legalizing, so it’s best to learn from them rather than repeat their mistakes.”

DENORML plans to spend 2016 talking about legalization with state lawmakers and then make a big lobbying push to get it approved in 2017. That effort will likely see opposition from lawmakers who fought the decriminalization.

None of the state senate’s Republicans voted for the decrim bill earlier this year. Marijuana is a gateway drug to more serious substances like heroin, said Sen. Colin Bonini, R- Dover, in the June debate. Bonini, who is running for governor in 2016, added, “There are real consequences to marijuana use…I think this is something we’re really going to regret.” 

For Ferguson, the idea that marijuana use will increase now that it’s decriminalized is ludicrous. “The people who use cannabis are going to continue to use cannabis, the people who don’t use cannabis are not going to say, ‘Oh boy, I’m not going to get busted now, I think I’ll go out and find some.’”

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