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Governor John Carney held a round table discussion on marijuana legalization at DelTech on Wednesday afternoon.
Kyle Grantham/The News Journal

A slew of influential groups are lining up to oppose a bill that would make Delaware the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana.

The proposed Delaware Marijuana Control Act is scheduled to be heard by the House Revenue and Finance Committee at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Organizations that represent police, hospitals, doctors and some of the state’s large employers say they plan to testify against the measure during the hearing.

AAA Mid-Atlantic, so far the loudest voice of opposition, will be joined by the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Association, the Delaware Healthcare Association, the Medical Society of Delaware and the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve found very little employer liability protection in the bill,” said James DeChene, the chamber’s senior vice president of government affairs. “If this gets passed, employers will have to enact zero-tolerance policies and right now there are no tests for marijuana impairment. That’s a big problem for construction and financial services industries, for example.”

The Delaware Healthcare Association also has concerns ranging from the potential of increased exposure in newborns to a possible spike in emergency room visits, particularly among patients who overindulge in edibles – food infused with marijuana, often with extremely high potency.

“We also share the same concerns as AAA Mid-Atlantic over the risk of an increase in drugged driving, as well as the employment concerns raised by the state chamber,” said association President and Chief Executive Wayne Smith.

The Rev. Tom Layman of the Sunday Breakfast Mission, a homeless shelter in Wilmington, said he also plans to testify in opposition to the bill.

“After more than 28 years of rescue mission work, I can say 90 to 95 percent of adults coming into our shelter are fighting substance abuse, and the vast majority began using by the age of 18,” he said. “Marijuana will find its way into the hands of teens and pre-teens, and that availability will only explode the homeless issue in our state.”

Introduced in late March, the bill would allow anyone 21 and older to purchase up to 1 ounce of marijuana from dozens of stores authorized to sell cannabis. The legislation also would authorize the creation of a marijuana industry that would include cultivation facilities, testing companies and manufacturing businesses that specialize in converting the plant into edibles, liquids, ointments and other end products.

The bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Helene Keeley, D-South Wilmington, and Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, estimate the act could generate $22 million in annual tax revenue for Delaware, which is currently facing a nearly $400 million deficit.

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Despite the list of powerful groups opposing the measure, the bill is widely viewed as having a good chance of clearing the 13-member House Revenue and Finance Committee, which is made up of nine Democrats and four Republicans. Keeley, who was not immediately available for comment Friday, chairs the committee while three other Democrats on the panel are co-sponsors of the legislation.

“We are optimistic that legislators are willing to eliminate what is now a dangerous criminal market and replace it with a taxed and well-regulated system,” said Zoë Patchell, who heads the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network – one of the bill’s chief supporters.

Other groups that actively supporting the bill include the state chapter of the NAACP and DeNORML, the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Even if the Marijuana Control Act wins approval in committee, the bill still would face an unusually tall hurdle. To become law, the measure requires backing from 14 senators and 28 representatives — a two-thirds vote in both houses needed to change criminal penalties.

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

But Gov. John Carney has said he does not support the legislation. The state, his office noted, is still working to get the 6-year-old medical marijuana program fully operational and already has approved a law decriminalizing marijuana in 2015, downgrading possession of an ounce from a criminal offense to a civil violation, like a parking ticket.

The supermajority required to pass the bill also would make the measure veto-proof, but Carney’s opposition could make it harder for lawmakers — particularly Democrats — to overrule the governor.

“The majority of Delawareans are in favor of taxing and regulating cannabis like alcohol,” Patchell said. “And we hope our elected representatives will listen to the will of the voters on this issue.”

DCAN is planning to drum up public support with a march through downtown Rehoboth Beach at 2 p.m. Saturday as part of the Global Cannabis March, an effort to call attention to what the group calls “harsh, failed and costly policies prohibiting cannabis.”

Both DCAN and AAA Mid-Atlantic also are planning lobbying events at Legislative Hall on Thursday, regardless of whether the bill is voted out of committee.

“Regardless of whether Wednesday’s hearing is the first phase or the final phase for this bill, we think it will be helpful to continue educating lawmakers and the public on this issue,” AAA spokesman Ken Grant said.

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

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