Delawareans could legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana for “personal use” under new legislation backed by Democratic lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly.
The legislation would set the minimum age for marijuana possession at 21 and would only impose a $100 civil fine on anyone found consuming marijuana in a public place, including streets, parks and sidewalks.
Under current Delaware law, possession of small amounts of marijuana is currently prosecuted as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and fines of up to $1,150.
Rep. Helene Keeley, a Wilmington Democrat, is sponsoring the bill. The measure could be difficult to move through the Legislature with just a month left in the current session, but at least 14 other Democratic lawmakers have joined Keeley as co-sponsors. No Republicans were listed as sponsors on Thursday.
“This is to start dialogue,” Keeley said. “I think that society is evolving just like it evolved when it came to same sex marriage,” Keeley said.
Sen. Bryan Townsend, a Newark Democrat and co-sponsor of the legislation, called the measure the “first step” in the direction of full legalization and regulation of marijuana sales.
“So many people’s entry into the criminal justice system involves possession or use of very small amounts of marijuana,” Townsend said. “There are very serious drugs, we need to treat people’s addictions and we need to penalize drug dealers. In my mind, marijuana is not in the same grouping as a lot of the drugs we need to be focusing our efforts on.”
Republicans, who are in the minority in both chambers of the General Assembly, are likely to oppose the effort.
“I don’t believe we need to legalize marijuana,” said Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, calling marijuana a “pathway to greater drug use. There was some merit, I thought, to marijuana for medical use for people that are sick. But as far as recreational marijuana, I just don’t think we need to go down that path right now. I think my caucus members would feel the same way.”
The marijuana proposal comes after a March poll showed more than two-thirds of Delawareans supported the removal of criminal penalties for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana, with criminal penalties replaced by civil fines. The poll was commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group, and conducted by Public Policy Polling.
If passed, the measure would place Delaware among the most liberal states on marijuana policy. Eighteen states have eliminated jail time for first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, though some still impose criminal penalties for repeat offenders.
Maryland lawmakers approved decriminalization legislation this year that imposes $100 fines on anyone found possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana, with mandatory drug education for third-time offenders.
“It is time to stop branding people as criminals for using marijuana, and marking them with a criminal conviction that can derail dreams by making it difficult to get a job, education or housing,” said Robert Capecchi, deputy director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. “This sensible measure would allow police to focus on serious crimes instead of people who choose a substance that is safer than alcohol.”
Gov. Jack Markell has said he would not support a move toward full legalization of marijuana, but a spokesman for the governor said he is “willing to discuss” changes that would eliminate criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of the drug.
Markell signed legislation in 2011 legalizing marijuana for medical purposes but delayed the program under threats from the federal government. The state recently took bids from seven companies to operate its first medical marijuana dispensary.
Kelly Bachman, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Markell had not seen specifics of the bill on Thursday and has not discussed the measure with Keeley.
“He has expressed interest in ongoing dialogue regarding changing the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana,” Bachman said, “and this bill provides another opportunity to do so. He looks forward to those conversations.”