State legislators who support plan say they've crafted solid bill, but is it enough to satisfy its detractors?

State Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Dover, said she believes it’s time to legalize marijuana for personal adult use in Delaware, and she’s helping craft what she called one of the strongest bills of its kind in Delaware yet.

Opponents of the bill, however, say that legalized marijuana is just “Big Tobacco” in another guise that brings with it a host of troubling societal issues.

Additional bill sponsor Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, said his main reason for supporting the bill is that keeping marijuana illegal is akin to the Volstead Act of 1919 that ushered in the era of alcohol prohibition.

“Prohibition did not stop alcohol – it put it under the cover of darkness, and pushed people to work with criminals,” he said. “That was not good for our society, and that’s where we are today.”

Marijuana is currently legal for adult use in eight states – Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine – along with the District of Columbia.

POT ECONOMICS

For Keeley, marijuana is as much an economic matter as it is a legal and social one.

“I’m looking at [HB 110] as an actual economic development bill,” Keeley said. “We’re talking about diversifying our economy by introducing recreational cannabis.”

Introduced in March, the “Delaware Marijuana Control Act” would allow adults 21 and over to legally possess and use under one ounce of marijuana for personal use.

It places an excise tax of $50 per ounce on cultivated marijuana, and $25 per immature plant.

It also allows for licensed and regulated businesses to openly sell marijuana with the purchase of a $5,000 license, with an additional $10,000 due biennially, which the bill notes is lower than the fee for compassion centers under the Delaware Medical Marijuana program.

Keeley said that introducing the bill was not an action she took lightly, believing there are “a ton” of industries that could benefit from legalized cannabis, from cultivation, construction and banking, to sales, science and financial.

It would also prevent users from having to make “black market” purchases from a criminal element, Keeley added.

Gov. John Carney, who in the past has been an outspoken opponent of marijuana legalization, said that his peers in marijuana-legal states have told him to take his time in developing similar laws.

Carney said he has spoken to Colorado and Washington governors John Hickenlooper and Jay Inslee at length about their experiences with legal marijuana and preventing black market operations from flourishing.

“They both [said] that if we took this step in Delaware, that we shouldn’t allow … a certain amount to be homegrown,” Carney said. “That’s a flaw they admitted [was] in their legislation in Colorado.”

HB 110 does not allow any home cultivation of cannabis – a provision that doesn’t sit well with the Delaware chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws executive director Cyn Ferguson.

Despite that, she said she is pleased with the bill overall, particularly with the provisions that allow for small business owners to get involved.

“That way the average guy out there could acquire one of these licenses,” she said. “That way, it isn’t just the big corporations that are involved.”

SAFETY CONCERNS

The Keep Delaware Safe and Healthy Coalition, co-sponsored by a number of agencies including AAA, the Delaware Healthcare Association and the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council, oppose HB 110 for a number of reasons.

In an open letter to Carney, the coalition names increased violence and criminal activity, mental and physical health concerns and economic factors like employers having to seek non-drug users for hire from out-of-state, as reasons to continue with marijuana prohibition.

Jeff Zinsmeister of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), who is working with the coalition, said that the Washington, DC-based Marijuana Policy Project has already taken money from big tobacco companies to help fund legalization initiatives in Michigan.

The MPP did not return a request for comment in time for print.

However, MPP senior communications manager Morgan Fox said MPP has not received any money from any tobacco companies.

“[SAM] is probably referring to the Michigan campaign, to which MPP has contributed, which also received a contribution from a local company that owns a chain of tobacco retailers in addition to consulting for medical marijuana retailers,” Fox said in an email.

Specifically, Zinsmeister said there is a fear of targeting children as users, and general health and safety concerns associated with marijuana use.

“This is not about stigmatizing or imprisoning the average Joe for smoking a joint,” Zinsmeister said. “It’s about preventing the large-scale commercialization of another addictive substance.”

At a June 1 roundtable in Wilmington, AAA representative Jim Lardear noted increased incidences of “drugged driving” in legalized states, as well as increased emergency room visits associated with marijuana use.

“We’re deeply concerned … knowing what problems it would cause for thousands of families on the roads every day,” Lardear said. “It’s a serious gamble for public safety.”

IS MARIJUANA ADDICTIVE?

According to a 2010 article on Time.com, experts vary on identifying “addiction” between the manifestation of physical withdraw symptoms (as in opiate withdraw), as opposed to psychological withdraw.

The 2013 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), however, identifies “Cannabis Use Disorder” as a syndrome of symptoms that arises from prolonged and continued use.

Internet Mental Health identifies marijuana withdraw symptoms as: irritability, anger, or aggression; nervousness or anxiety; sleep difficulty; decreased appetite or weight loss; restlessness; and depressed mood.

Cannabis dependence develops in 9 percent of users, significantly less than that of heroin, cocaine, alcohol, and prescription anti-anxiety drugs, according to a 2016 article from the Journal of the American Medical Association on marijuana use in oncology.

LAWMAKERS REACT

Co-sponsor Sen. Dave Sokola, D-Newark, said he supports the bill the same as he did with both the medical and decriminalization bills that passed in 2011 and 2015 respectively.

He also said that many of the problems opponents of the bill have presented have to do with things that the bill doesn’t do – i.e., allow for impaired driving.

“You can’t drive under the influence of alcohol, and you won’t be able to drive under the influence of marijuana – that doesn’t change,” Sokola said. “The Clean Air Act and indoor smoking provisions still stand.”

He also said some the information being circulated by AAA is well-meaning, if not entirely factual.

“We spend far too much time and resources on something that doesn’t require that much attention,” he said. “I think people can decide for themselves.”

Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said he does not support HB 110, saying there are a number of unanswered questions and concerns about the bill. 

“These range from conflicts with existing federal laws, evolving and mixed experiences in other states that have adopted similar legislation, [and] the absence of a law enforcement field test for marijuana and related issues,” Lavelle said.

At this time, there are no field tests for determining marijuana sobriety.

State Police spokesman Sgt. Richard Bratz said that the DSP is not providing a statement for HB 110 at this time.

COMPROMISES POSSIBLE

As work progresses, Keeley said she isn’t dead set on every provision in the bill as it is currently written, with public comment and feedback helping shape HB 110.

Keeley said she’s poring through suggestions from a hearing last month, and the June 1 roundtable discussion.

Some of those comments, she said, may make their way into HB 110 before it reaches a vote.

Suggestions Keeley said she’s encountered include proper packaging and labeling, and ensuring it doesn’t make its way into the hands of minors.

“We want to include these suggestions, and alleviate concerns, to make this a stronger bill,” Keeley said.

To view the bill details, or download a PDF version, visit legis.delaware.gov/BillDetail?LegislationId=25571.

MARIJUANA - BY THE NUMBERS

54 – percent of Americans who think marijuana should be legal in a 2014 study

8 – number of states where recreational marijuana is legal. It is also legal in Washington, D.C.

$200 million – Colorado tax revenue from marijuana sales in 2016

8.2  million – number of marijuana-associated arrests in the U.S. between 2001 and 2010

20 - Number of states with decriminalized marijuana

(Sources: pewresearch.org; suntimes.com; marketwatch.com; aclu.org; drugpolicy.org)