Ounce of pot now a civil fine in Delaware under new decriminalization of marijuana law

 (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Gov. Jack Markell signed legislation Thursday for the decriminalization of small amount personal use marijuana.

Introduced by Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, and co-sponsored by democratic Senators Margaret Rose Henry and Bryan Townsend, the bill passed in the Senate with a 12 to 9 vote. The law will be enacted in six months.

“Many young people are hindered when getting financial aid to go to college because they might have smoked marijuana,” Henry said.

“We think this gives protection to young people. We don’t want it to affect financial aid, we don’t want it to affect housing, and we don’t want it to affect jobs. So we think this is good policy,”  Henry added.

The bill, which passed in the House June 2 with a 24 to 14 vote, eliminates criminal penalties for adults charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

Markell’s spokeswoman Kelly Bachman said in a statement that the governor wants to give people charged with minor offenses a chance of living a positive life.

“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,” she said.

Adults will instead face a civil penalty that won’t become part of their criminal record if they possess or consume of one ounce or less of marijuana for private use. Individuals can’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 will still receive criminal penalties for smoking in public or operating a vehicle while under the influence.

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.

None of the Republican senators voted favorably for the legislation. Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said he doesn’t believe an ounce or less is small enough to be considered harmless.

“I’ve got a problem with the term small amount of marijuana. You hear an ounce and you think that’s not a lot. But this is an ounce of a substance—just for record it’s oregano—but this is what an ounce is,” he said, holding a plastic bag of herbs. “This is not a small amount.” 

Colin Bonini, R-Dover, said he didn’t vote for the bill because he believes marijuana is a gateway drug to more series substances like heroin.

“I have one alcoholic beverage and I’m not impaired. If I have one joint I’m impaired,” he said on the floor. “There are real consequences to marijuana use, and I think this is going to pass and this is what the culture is today, but I think this is something we’re really going to regret.”  

Henry and Keeley said the bill doesn’t promote reckless behavior, and instead helps individuals who enjoy marijuana in a responsible manner.

“I think it would have been nice to know if none of (the Republicans) ever smoked marijuana in their life,” Henry said.

“When kids go to college they’re exposed to more things. They have to learn to be responsible with drinking and everything else. We just want people to be responsible, and this has some consequences if you’re not responsible.” 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.