If you think supporters of legalizing marijuana are all pot-smokers and hippies, think again.

After winning several legislative victories over the past few years, a close-knit corps of advocates is putting its full weight behind the Holy Grail of marijuana reform: Legislation that would make Delaware the ninth state to fully legalize, regulate and tax cannabis.

“We’re so close we can taste it,” said Cynthia Ferguson, executive director of the Delaware branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

How did Ferguson and her comrades get this far? By eschewing what they see as outdated clichés about tie-dyes and Cheech and Chong movies and arming themselves with arguments rooted in social justice, fiscal policy and economic development.

Emboldened by polls that show broad support for legalization both in Delaware and nationwide, they are showing up in force at town hall meetings, holding rallies and lobbying events in Dover, and privately pushing lawmakers to change their minds.

BACKGROUND:Read details on how the legalization law would work

READ MORE:Do they have the votes?

Most of them are doing all of this in their spare time.

Ferguson, 56, is a code enforcement administrator for the City of Wilmington.

A couple of times a month, she also sets off pyrotechnic displays at Frawley Stadium, where she works as a private contractor for a Pennsylvania-based fireworks company.

“It’s a lot to juggle but it’s a cause I believe in,” she said of her pro-marijuana lobbying efforts. “Thankfully, we’re all in this together, which helps more than I can tell you.”

Ferguson is among a handful of core activists – most of them women – working to change state laws and public attitudes about cannabis in Delaware.

Collectively known as the Delaware Cannabis Policy Coalition, the group is made up of four main organizations: NORML, the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network, the state chapter of the NAACP and the Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit dedicated to reforming state drug laws.

Buy Photo

Over 100 people turn out for a roundtable discussion on House Bill 110, a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana in Delaware, at Delaware Technical Community College in Wilmington on Wednesday afternoon. (Photo: KYLE GRANTHAM/THE NEWS JOURNAL)

“It’s what I would call a grass tips organization rather than grassroots one,” said Maggie Ellinger-Locke, a 34-year lawyer with the Washington D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. “The roots are the people helping out, while the tips are leading the effort in a more professional manner.”

Their strategy appears to be working.

Members of the coalition helped to advance Delaware’s medical marijuana program in 2011. They also successfully lobbied for passage of a 2015 bill that eliminated criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of the drug.

The Delaware Marijuana Control Act was introduced in the state House of Representatives last month by Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, and Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington – who also introduced bills that legalized medical marijuana and decriminalization.

Turning heads in Legislative Hall

Keeley believes marijuana advocates have momentum because citizens are growing more comfortable about voicing their support in public.

“I think there has been this fear. They think, ‘I don’t want to put myself out there,’ ” Keeley said. “But more and more, it is becoming less of a taboo thing to talk about.”

A big reason, Keeley argues, is that supporters have built stronger arguments beyond that of personal use.

“It’s about much more than just people who want to enjoy cannabis like a glass of wine,” Keeley said. “There are people who are interested in creating a new era of business and economic development. They’re talking about how we could create revenue for the state.”

Both Keeley and Henry, D-Wilmington East, have said the core argument for legalization is social justice. They point out that black and poor people are far more likely to end up in jail for marijuana possession.

“This bill would raise revenue, and that’s good, but that’s not the reason we’re bringing this bill,” Henry said.

Keeley and Henry say they are confident the measure will get the backing it needs from 14 senators and 27 representatives – a two-thirds vote in both houses needed to change criminal penalties. That means it will need both Democratic and Republican votes.

Gary Simpson (Photo: legis.delaware.gov)

“This is just my general feeling, but I don’t think it has the votes yet,” said Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford. “I don’t see it as a party issue, I think there are supporters and opponents on both sides.”

Simpson said most legislators have seen an increase in calls to support the legislation. He chalks that up to greater energy among activists, not a major increase in the number of supporters.

“They see other states relaxing the laws about recreational marijuana, they look at the state’s fiscal situation and think they can persuade legislators on a monetary basis, I think they see an opening,” Simpson said.

Simpson said many members of the General Assembly want a more conclusive picture of how full legalization has affected other states. He says concerns linger about marijuana-impaired driving, an increase in the use of other, more harmful drugs and brain development in minors.

“Why jump into something that really hasn’t been studied enough?” he said, sounding much like Gov. John Carney, a Democrat.

Rep. Larry Mitchell, D-Elsmere, thinks there’s a chance legalization passes either this year or next year, during the same General Assembly session. If it doesn’t, he thinks it will pass in the future, and “not in the far-off future.”

Mitchell, like Simpson and Carney, thinks the state needs more comprehensive information on how other states have fared. But he said advocates’ efforts are bearing fruit.

“The right people for legalizing marijuana are at the forefront now and they’re making all the correct arguments,” Mitchell said. “With that being said, they’ve caught the attention of quite a few legislators.”

Supporters have been particularly zealous in pressuring Carney, who thinks decriminalization and medical marijuana were good ideas but is resistant to the idea of full legalization.

The two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill would theoretically also mean it could survive a Carney veto. But lawmakers who are tentative supporters of legalization — particularly Democrats — may find it much harder to overrule the governor.

Realizing this, the cannabis coalition and other proponents have heat on Carney. He has been holding town-hall discussions up and down the state that were supposed to be about Delaware’s budget woes, but at virtually every event he was barraged with questions about marijuana.

The pleas became so persistent that Carney held a special roundtable discussion last week just to talk about marijuana. More than 100 people attended the event at Delaware Technical and Community College’s George Campus in Wilmington, and the vast majority of them clearly supported legalization.

Seated at the table with Carney were Keeley, Henry and the leaders of the Cannabis Coalition.

Zoe Patchell, who leads the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network, was one of the panelists.

A 36-year-old paralegal who works in Dover, Patchell is a registered lobbyist who co-founded her group, which boasts more than 80 dues-paying members.

Buy Photo

Zoe Patchell, executive director of Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network, stands for a portrait at Legislative Hall in Dover. A registered lobbyist, Patchell is one of four leading advocates for marijuana law reform in the state. (Photo: Jason Minto, The News Journal)

Patchell said she became active in marijuana reform after reading research that dispelled myths about the drug, many dating back to the infamous 1936 anti-cannabis propaganda film “Reefer Madness.”

“After getting access to the truth, I felt obligated to tell others,” she said.

Patchell first joined the Philadelphia chapter of NORML before becoming a board member of DeNORMAL, which won its charter in 2014.

“The biggest difference I’ve noticed in the public perception of marijuana has been at Legislative Hall,” she said. “I think legislators are more receptive now than ever before because they see the research themselves and are aware of how their constituents feel thanks to all of the polling.”

A public debate

Legalization backers say the public is on their side.

A University of Delaware poll last year suggests 61 percent of residents support legalization.

Nationally, support has steadily increased over the years. Gallup polling organization pegs support nationwide around 60 percent, up from 12 percent in 1969.

That’s partially because more people understand the arguments for legalization, proponents like Keeley say.

One of those arguments: marijuana is safer than alcohol, which is legal. It isn’t chemically addictive, it can’t lead to an overdose death, and it does not provoke risky behavior in those who consume it.

Another argument is that the war on drugs has needlessly filled prisons at a time when sky-high incarceration rates of black and low-income Americans are in the spotlight. There’s always the persuasive power of money — states like Colorado and Washington have reaped millions of dollars in revenue.

Legislatures in at least 18 states have introduced bills to legalize recreational marijuana use and sales among adults this year. Many, like Delaware, are facing a budget deficit. Current estimates place the First State’s shortfall at roughly $400 million. Legislators estimate the Delaware Marijuana Control Act could generate $22 million a year for state coffers.

“Lawmakers are looking for low-hanging fruit to fill these fiscal holes,” said Ellinger-Locke, a 34-year-old attorney from Missiouri. “With marijuana, they see an illicit market that can be regulated and taxed in a way that builds revenue and reduces the cost of arrests and incarceration.”

Just because pro-legalization advocacy is gaining steam doesn’t mean the opposition is crumbling.

AAA Mid-Atlantic, the influential automobile owners’ association, has been asking lawmakers to tap the brakes, given concerns about marijuana-impaired driving.

“For the risks on the road posed by impaired/drugged driving and the unintended consequences for the public that states who have legalized recreational marijuana are now painfully learning, we, as a good corporate citizen of Delaware and a protector of AAA members for safe road travel, oppose any measure to commercialize the use of marijuana in the state of Delaware,” said Cathy Rossi, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Vice President of Public & Government Affairs.

In Colorado, AAA is neutral on all matters pertaining to marijuana. However, the organization’s spokesman is intimately familiar with that state’s marijuana law.

Skyler McKinley spent a year as the deputy director of the Colorado Office of Marijuana Coordination and served as a press secretary for Gov. John Hickenlooper. He had a first-hand view of how Colorado implemented legalization in 2014 following passage of a voter referendum two years earlier.

“I think what we did was prove that the sky wasn’t going to fall because of legal pot,” he said. “But there have been several hiccups along the way. My advice to Delaware would be to slow down, allow some time to see how these efforts play out in other states and above all bring opponents to the table early to carve out a bill everyone can live with.”

Warnings like those are one reason some Delaware state leaders are hesitating.

“This is a huge issue that we’ve got to make sure we get right before we go either way on it,” said Rep. Mitchell.

Complicating the picture is the fact that the federal government still considers marijuana an illegal narcotic, which has raised concerns about the interaction between federal and state law enforcement. Those concerns have been exacerbated by the election of President Donald Trump, whose Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has promised a more hard-line stance on marijuana than his predecessors under President Barack Obama.

Given all these concerns, cannabis advocates still face an uphill fight. But they remain optimistic that, sooner or later, they will triumph.

“I think we’re really lucky to be riding this wave of public support,” Ferguson said. “And it’s only going to build from here.”

Contact Matthew Albright at malbright@delawareonline.com, (302) 324-2428 or on Twitter @TNJ_malbright. 

Read or Share this story: http://delonline.us/2p4OqaY