Marijuana decriminalization bill passes in Delaware House [video]

 (Paul Parmelee/WHYY)

(Paul Parmelee/WHYY)

Delaware took its first step toward decriminalizing marijuana Tuesday.

The Delaware House passed on a 24 to 14 vote.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, proposes the elimination of criminal penalties for adults charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

“There is a large population of adults out there who enjoy the use of marijuana as someone would go home and enjoy a glass of wine,” Keeley said. “I don’t believe we should penalize someone who in the privacy of their home would like to use marijuana over a glass of wine.”

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The legislation, which has several co-sponsors, proposes a civil penalty that won’t become part of an individual’s criminal record for the possession or consumption of one ounce or less of marijuana for private use. Individuals couldn’t face incarceration, be fined more than $200 or imprisoned more than 5 days.

The bill doesn’t repeal or modify existing laws relating to medical marijuana or penalties for the operation of motor vehicles under the influence. Individuals would still receive criminal penalties for smoking in public or operating a vehicle while under the influence.

“The goal of the bill is not legalizing,” Keeley said. “The goal is the decriminalization of small amount personal use in private.”

Keeley made some amendments to her legislation in regards to age. The legislation doesn’t apply for 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.

Lisa Minutola, chief of legal services for the Delaware Office of the Public Defender, said while she doesn’t encourage drug use, she is concerned juveniles will receive harsher punishments.

“It’s the same as the current law, but if the legislation is passed we’re treating juveniles more harshly than adults,” she said.

Keeley said she’s not pleased about this concession, but in order to pass legislation for the public she made compromises. The number one concern was that it’s still illegal to drink alcohol under 21, she said.

Several of those opposed to Keeley’s legislation said they were concerned about the different ramifications for various ages, and many others said they felt decriminalizing marijuana would encourage individuals to abuse drugs.

“If we pass this bill today, tomorrow the young people of Delaware are going to get a clear message the state of Delaware says marijuana is okay,” Rep. Richard Collins, R-Millsboro, said. “I do not see how that could not lead to more drug dealing.”

Those who support Keeley’s legislation say it’s time to pass legislation because too many people charged with non-violent crimes are unable to turn their lives around after the charge is on their record.

Rep. James Johnson, D-New Castle, said while he doesn’t agree with the age amendment, he believes the legislation is a step in the right direction.

“I think the war on drugs has created a caste structure,” he said. “Once you’ve been convicted of drug possession you’re put in a certain class you’ll never redeem from.”

The bill will go before the Senate for a vote before it can be signed by Governor Jack Markell.

“Obviously I’m very excited the bill passed and is heading to the Senate,” Keeley said. “I still feel to a certain extent the compromise was needed and we’re moving forward.”


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