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House passes marijuana decrim bill

Delaware Public Media

House lawmakers passed a bill decriminalizing marijuana for most adults along a straight party line vote Tuesday.

Those over 21-years-old would be able to possess an ounce of pot and only face a civil penalty with a $100 fine if caught.

Smoking in public would still be a misdemeanor, punishable by a $200 fine and up to five days in prison.

A late amendment from the sponsor, Rep. Helene Keeley (D-Wilmington South) brought back a tiered punishment system for those under 21.

Minors caught with cannabis would still be charged with a misdemeanor. The first offense for those between the ages of 18 and 21 would be a simple civil citation, but subsequent offenses would turn into misdemeanors.

“I’m not 100 percent happy with this part of the concession, but in order to do something for the greater public, agreements were made,” Keeley said.

The debate lasted an hour and a half, with Republicans, including Rep. Ruth Briggs King (R-Georgetown), saying this bill sends the wrong message to Delaware’s children and young adults.

“You’re providing them with the notion that it’s okay. This product is unregulated, this product has no regulations to the trade, and it leaves, in my opinion, the public and the user at risk,” Briggs King said.

Others said that it would act like a gateway drug, eventually leading to an increase in the amount of people addicted to harder drugs like heroin.

Rep. Rich Collins (R-Millsboro) notes that some penalties in law are meant to be punitive.

“This is not something that’s going to lead to a long, healthy, productive live," said Collins. "So are we doing young people a favor by taking away this disincentive for behavior that is destructive to themselves and to their families?”

Other provisions in the legislation would forbid someone from smoking within 10 feet of a door, window public sidewalk or ventilation shaft – even if it were on your own property.

Rep. James Johnson (D-New Castle) said he felt Keeley gave up too much in her concessions to opponents who didn’t end up supporting the legislation.

But he says he ended up voting for it to address a racial disparity in those locked up for drug offenses.

“Although the use of drugs is universal – it’s probably in every area of the community throughout this state – but the minority community through history has suffered the worst, and if you don’t believe me, just look at the incarceration rate,” Johnson said.

This is the first time any legislative chamber has passed a decriminalization effort in Delaware.

Gov. Jack Markell (D) has said he supports efforts to decriminalize marijuana, but wouldn't embrace full legalization.

It now heads to the state Senate for consideration.

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