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Delaware’s first bill to legalize recreational marijuana unveiled.
Jason Minto/The News Journal

Delaware took a major step Thursday toward becoming the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana use.

State legislators unveiled a bill that would allow state residents 21 and older to purchase up to an ounce of cannabis from dozens of stores that would be authorized to sell marijuana manufactured at a number of Delaware grow operations.

“House Bill 110 creates an entirely new industry in our state,” said Rep. Helene Keeley, D-South Wilmington. “As the only state in a seven-hour drive to have legalized marijuana, we would become a destination that would attract out-of-state sales, which would have a benefit to our Delaware businesses.”

Keeley and fellow chief sponsor, state Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, estimate legalized recreational marijuana could generate $22 million in tax revenue for the financially strapped state in the first year that the proposed program is up and running.

The legislators insisted that their proposal is not aimed at filling the state’s current $386 million budget hole.

“We see it as a social justice issue,” Henry said, describing the legislation as an effort to reform the criminal justice system by legalizing “something that people always have done and are doing.”

RELATED STORY: Medical marijuana dispensary set to open near Lewes

RELATED STORY: Rally for marijuana legalization held in Newark

Local advocates for legalization, including Delaware NORML and the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network, cheered the bill as a victory for common sense policy.

“Delaware cannot afford to wait to end this failed costly policy,” said Zoe Patchell, executive director of the cannabis network. “We spend $22.3 million annually arresting people like me who choose a healthier, safer alternative to alcohol.”

Jude McDonald, a 62-year-old Newark resident perhaps best known as the owner of the former Jude’s Diner in Newark, is a medical marijuana card holder and a self-described recreational user who began using cannabis after being diagnosed with hepatitis C. McDonald said she supports the legislation because it would end the criminalization of otherwise law-abiding residents.

“How many family members do you know who have used cannabis in your life?” she asked. “I volunteer at a homeless shelter, and none of those people are in that situation because of marijuana. They often find themselves homeless because of legal drugs like opiates that are far more harmful.”

A poll conducted by the University of Delaware last year found that more than 60 percent of state residents support full legalization of marijuana.

Gov. John Carney, however, is not one of them.

The state, his office noted, is still working to get the 6-year-old medical marijuana program fully operational and approved a law decriminalizing marijuana in 2015, downgrading possession of an ounce from a criminal offense to a civil violation, like a parking ticket.

Carney has said he also wants to allow more time to study the impact of legalization efforts in the eight other jurisdictions that have approved such measures, including Colorado, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.

At least 14 legislators had signed on to co-sponsor the Delaware Marijuana Control Act, including Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, who last year proposed legalizing cannabis while running for governor. Keeley said she is confident the measure will get votes from two-thirds of the Senate and House members needed to pass a bill that contains new criminal penalties. In this case, those penalties relate to fines for underage consumption.

“This is where the grassroots support starts,” Keeley said. “For advocates, now is their chance to call their legislator and tell them they want this.”

While the legalization movement in Delaware took a major step Thursday, a great deal of uncertainty still remains over how the Trump administration plans to deal with state-led marijuana initiatives. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, even for medicinal use.

POLL:Should marijuana be legalized in Delaware for anyone 21 or older?

The White House has indicated it may be willing to allow medical marijuana programs to continue unfettered while signaling a potential crackdown on states that have legalized cannabis for recreational use. The National District Attorney’s Association has created a policy group to advise the White House.

Colorado, which passed its law in 2014, has generated close to $1 billion a year from marijuana sales tax, according to that state’s revenue department.

“It generates revenue, but that’s about the only positive thing I can say about it,” said Jeffrey Horvath, executive director of the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of negatives that also come with it, and we’re against the bill.”

Horvath said the Colorado law enforcement officials he’s spoken with have warned that state oversight needed to properly monitor the new drug law has been difficult to implement.

“They tell me the black market is stronger there today than it has ever been,” he said. “And they’ve had a real issue with edibles, which tend to look like gummy bears, cookies and candy, getting in the hands of children. Teen marijuana use also has increased.”

The Delaware Fraternal Order of Police has not yet taken a position on the legalization of recreational marijuana.

“The General Assembly’s job is to enact laws, and our role is to enforce whatever is on the books,” said Fred Calhoun, the union’s president.

Nearly 2,750 Delawareans are currently licensed to purchase medical marijuana from the state’s lone dispensary near Wilmington. A second dispensary is expected to open near Lewes in the coming weeks with a third in Kent County moving toward operation this fall.

Some of the state’s medical marijuana patients have recently argued that the limited access currently available has led to exorbitant prices and the strains they rely on frequently being sold out.

Legalization advocates argue that allowing shops catering to recreational use would address many of those issues through free market competition.

The NAACP Delaware State Conference is joining those advocates in lobbying the General Assembly to pass a legalization bill. They say the war on drugs has created a racially biased criminal justice system that results in the disproportionate arrest of African-Americans.

“We believe it’s time to direct attention and resources towards reducing heroin and opioid-related deaths and crime,” Delaware NAACP President Linwood Jackson said in a release. “Tax revenue generated from cannabis sales will benefit our citizens and state.”

The proposed Delaware Marijuana Control Act would create a commission to regulate, license and tax the state’s marijuana business. Consumers would be required to pay a $50-per-ounce excise tax, while retailers would be charged a $5,000 application fee and a $10,000 annual licensing fee.

Up to 40 retails stores could be licensed to sell marijuana under the bill, with medical marijuana dispensaries given the first opportunity to open retail operations.

Keeley and Henry noted the bill would not allow people to consume marijuana in public, grow their own plants or prohibit any employer, public or private, from requiring routine drug screenings.

Money generated from taxes and fees, they said, would first be directed toward covering administrative costs. The remaining funds would be allocated toward education, programs aimed at helping prisoners re-enter society, drug abuse rehabilitation and prevention programs and initiatives aimed at training police officers to recognize whether drivers are under the influence of marijuana and other drugs.

AAA Mid-Atlantic says its research shows an alarming increase in the proportion of drivers involved in fatal crashes in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Other studies dispute that finding.

There is no test to determine the intoxication level of drivers who ingest marijuana comparable to breathalyzers that gauge blood-alcohol content.

“For whatever marijuana might raise in revenue, its legalization comes at a potentially high cost to society and safety, including new threats on our roads,” said Cathy Rossi, vice president of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Contact business reporter Scott Goss at (302) 324-2281, sgoss@delawareonline.com or on Twitter @ScottGossDel.

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