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Marijuana decrim bill heads to House

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Delaware Public Media
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Pro-marijuana advocates scored a victory Wednesday when a bill decriminalizing personal amounts of the drug was released from a committee.

The House Public Safety Committee Wednesday voted mostly along party lines five to four to send the bill to the floor after nearly two hours of debate and public comment. Rep. William Carson (D-Smyrna) was the lone Democrat to vote against it.

Under the proposal, anyone caught with an ounce of pot or less would be given a $100 civil penalty instead of possibly facing jail time.

Smoking in a public place would still be illegal and the fine for doing so would be $200. Possessing drug paraphernalia would also be a $100 fine.

Supporters argue that some people are unable to get jobs after being arrested or convicted of possessing small amounts of the drug since it’s a common question on job applications, or might come up on a background check.

An amendment to the bill would restrict most people to smoking within their home or apartment and forbidding them to smoke within ten feet of a sidewalk, open window or building vent – even on their private property.

Sponsoring Rep. Helene Keeley says she tried to strike a balance.

“When you have a bill of this magnitude it is really difficult to try and keep the integrity of the bill, but also try to satisfy the opponents and try to address some of the opponent’s points,” Keeley said.

Despite that, fellow Democrats like Rep. James Johnson (D-New Castle) and Rep. Michael Mulrooney (D-Pennwood) said she gave too much ground to police.

"My concern is that you were too accommodating in the legislation," said Johnson. "Where would they be able to smoke?"

Law enforcement still opposes the bill, despite having worked with Keeley for the past few months on drafting possible changes to it.

They say that it will no longer allow them to use a small amount of marijuana as probable cause to search a vehicle, despite an amendment that says it will not alter any laws regarding search and seizure.

"Drug dealers are saying bring it on because they're ready to cash in on this," said Delaware State Police Sgt. Lance Skinner. A former undercover agent, Skinner says recent large drug seizures have come on the heels of searches sparked by officers finding small amounts of marijuana.

A letter from Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn (D) to Keeley and a law enforcement lobbyist agreed that officers wouldn’t be able to solely search someone if a small amount of pot is visible in their car.

But Denn says it could be used as part of the basis for probable cause, but that other factors would need to be present to authorize a search.

Bill Oberly, a lobbyist for the Delaware State Trooper's Association and a former member of the state House, has also been a part of talks with Keeley for the past few months since she introduced the bill in January.

Oberly's organization had advocated for marijuana possession to remain criminal, but allow those convicted to have their records expunged after a year with no further run-ins with the law.

Despite the opposition, Keeley says she will try to keep the bill’s momentum going.

“I do plan to run the bill this year in the House. As to where that fits in with the agenda, I will ask for it to be put on the agenda and I will work with leadership to have it worked.”

A similar bill also made it out of committee, but was never debated by the full House.

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