The push to make Delaware the 10th state to fully legalize marijuana will reach a high point today.
The House is slated to vote this afternoon on the Delaware Marijuana Control Act – legislation that would create a taxable industry dedicated to the production and sale of legal cannabis for adult use.
But after a nearly two-year effort to reach this point, the fate of the bill remains uncertain.
Co-sponsor Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, and marijuana advocates said as late as Tuesday that they might be a few votes short of the 25 needed to advance the recently amended bill – a slightly lower threshold than the 28 votes required by the original legislation.
Yet they believe they have nothing to lose by pushing the bill to the House floor.
That’s because all pending legislation still remaining in the General Assembly after July 1 is set to expire. Keeley and fellow co-sponsor Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, said they are retiring at the end of their current term.
Even if the bill is successful in the House today, the proposal faces a steep climb to become law.
The measure would next need to clear the state Senate, where it would need 13 votes from both Democrats and Republicans.
Gov. John Carney also has repeatedly said he is not in favor of the bill, arguing that more time is needed to study the full impact of marijuana legalization in nine other states and Washington, D.C.
Delaware is one of at least 20 states that has legalized cannabis for medical use, although it is still working to get its 7-year-old medical marijuana program fully operational. A dispensary in Smyrna is slated to open Wednesday, for instance, marking the first time patients can purchase the drug at a location in all three of Delaware’s counties.
The General Assembly approved a decriminalization law in 2015 that downgraded possession of an ounce or less from a criminal offense to a civil violation, like a parking ticket.
That’s enough marijuana reform for now, according to Carney and a coalition of influential organizations that represent police, hospitals, doctors and some of the state’s largest employers.
Led by AAA Mid-Atlantic, those groups argue that legalizing cannabis will result in a surge of drugged-driving crashes, emergency room visits, drug addiction and children being exposed to marijuana.
Advocates argue legalization would largely replace what is now a criminal industry with a legal one that could yield more than $20 million a year in tax revenue.
Tax dollars raised by the legal industry would be directed toward education, 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.
House Bill 110 also 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.
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 or discipline workers who are under the influence on the job.
Introduced in March 2017, the legislation managed to get out of committee last year but failed to get a vote on the House floor.
That led Keeley and Henry to create a 25-member task force that spent seven months studying how the state might regulate a legal marijuana industry. The hope was that the final report from the panel – made up of legalization proponents, opponents and representatives from various state agencies – might help sway undecided or uncommitted legislators.
The process ended in confusion and controversy, however, with members of the task force refusing to endorse the final product.
Yet Keeley was able to use the task force’s recommendations to introduce an amendment that seeks to address many concerns, while also reducing the total vote count needed for passage.
The prior threshold was set by the addition of new criminal penalties related to fines for underage consumption while the new version relies on existing laws to accomplish the same goal.
The new version seeks to enhance employers’ ability to enforce their own rules governing marijuana use, prohibits the use of certain pesticides, adds a process for tracking marijuana plants from seed to sale and limits certain types of final products that might be appealing to children, such as edibles that look like candy or cartoon characters.
The House is scheduled to vote on the amendment and the final bill sometime after 2 p.m.