Legalization

Delaware marijuana legalization bill clears House committee

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DOVER, Del. (AP) – A bill legalizing recreational marijuana use by adults in Delaware cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday as a Democratic-led committee voted along party lines, with one lone GOP vote, to send the measure to the House floor.

The bill creates a state-controlled and licensed pot industry that supporters say will eliminate the black market while creating jobs and boosting the state’s tax coffers.

While the proposal has significant support among Democratic lawmakers, Democratic Gov. John Carney has expressed concerns about legalization.

“The governor’s position hasn’t changed,” Carney spokesman Jonathan Starkey said in an email Wednesday. “He supported decriminalization and an expansion of Delaware’s medical marijuana program. But he still has concerns about legalizing recreational marijuana.”

Carney has not said, however, whether he would veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.

Critics argue that legalization will do little to eliminate the black market and will result in increased marijuana use among minors, more traffic deaths and injuries, and more people struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Supporters say the concerns of critics are unfounded and overblown, and that people will continue to smoke marijuana, whether it’s legal or not. More than a dozen states have legalized marijuana for adults.

“Who do you want controlling this market, drug dealers or the citizens of Delaware?” asked John Sybert, vice president of the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network.

The bill legalizes the possession and use of up to 1 ounce (28 grams) of marijuana by adults over age 21. People would not be allowed to grow their own plants, and public consumption and driving under the influence would be prohibited.

The bill establishes a marijuana tax, described as a “control enforcement fee” of 15% at the point of sale, which sponsors contend compares favorably with other states where pot is legal and would keep prices competitive with existing street values on the black market.

The legislation would create an Office of Marijuana Control Commissioner to regulate the industry and would initially authorize 30 retail store licenses, 30 manufacturing licenses, 60 cultivation licenses and five testing facility licenses.

Licenses for retail, testing and product manufacturing facilities would cost $10,000 every two years. Cultivation licenses would depend on the size and of the facility and type of ownership, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 every two years.

The legislation sets aside a certain number of licenses for “social equity” and “microbusiness” applicants.

Social equity applicants are defined as those who either live in an area disproportionately affected by marijuana laws, have been convicted of a marijuana-related offense, or who have a parent convicted of a marijuana-related offense. They would be entitled to technical assistance, reduced fees, loans and scoring preferences in the awarding of licenses.

Microbusiness applicants, which chief sponsor Rep. Ed Osienski compared to craft brewers, would have to be majority-owned by Delaware residents and would also be entitled to reduced fees and an adjusted points scale for scoring cultivation and product manufacturing licenses.

The scoring system would reward applicants for paying “family-supporting wages,” providing employer-paid health insurance and other benefits, hiring more full-time workers, and supporting diversity in the workforce.

The commissioner also would be required to consider whether an applicant has agreed to use union labor for construction or renovation of a facility, or has agreed not to disrupt efforts by organized labor to unionize its employees.

“This is part of our goal for community benefits,” Osienski, a retired business agent for a sprinkler fitters union, explained to Rep. Bryan Shupe, R-Milford.

“It seems to me that excludes a whole host of businesses in the private market,” Shupe responded. “… Why is that considered a community benefit?”

While the bill allows employers to prohibit use of marijuana by employees at work and to discipline those who are under the influence while on the job, representatives of the businesses community said it needs to explicitly allow them to implement and enforce zero-tolerance policies, both on and off the job.

Meanwhile, state finance officials have expressed concern about how sales would be handled and taxes paid in what is often a largely cash business. Given that marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, federally regulated banks have been reluctant to process payments or deposits related to the marijuana industry.

“We, as a state, certainly don’t want to be holding this money in cash,” said Finance Secretary Rick Geisenberger.