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Bill legalizing recreational marijuana hitting Dover

After years of lobbying, pro marijuana activists finally have a bill on paper headed for the General Assembly.

The draft bill legalizes recreational marijuana for anyone over 21-years-old. They can buy up to an ounce at a time from shops around the state.

It would still be illegal to smoke in public under the bill and it wouldn’t allow people to grow their own plants for personal use.

Anyone under 21 would receive a $100 civil fine for the first offense and an unclassified misdemeanor for any further arrests.

If it passes, initial retail licenses would be limited to 40 stores in Delaware, but the state could expand after three years if there’s enough demand.

Lawmakers backing the plan are touting it as a significant job creator across the agriculture, retail and tourism sectors.

"Other states that have regulated marijuana report that they have created thousands of new jobs, direct and indirect," said Rep. Helene Keeley (D-Wilmington South).

Keeley and others are embracing a study from the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-pot advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., that pegs tax revenue at $22 million for the first year.

Rep. John Kowalko (D-Newark South), a sponsor of the bill, says legislation like this will help better refocus priorities of the law enforcement community.

“I think that’s a waste of resources and I think it’s certainly an infringement on people to try to reflect on the heyday of ‘Reefer Madness,’” Kowalko said.

20 percent of all tax revenue raised would go directly to the Department of Education, while another 30 percent would be split by the state health department for addiction treatment, education campaigns and helping those with past pot convictions get jobs.

The rest would go to the General Fund, if not further earmarked.

Kowalko says the money will be a boon to the cash-strapped state, but it should be invested wisely.

“Understand that whatever revenue we get now, being an early entrant into the game is not going to be sustainable and that’s okay as long as we prepare for the future. And prepare for the future means we can’t just put it in our wallet and go out and spend it on joy rides the next day,” he said.

Last year, a University of Delaware poll found 61 percent of state residents supported full legalization and advocates have held several lobbying days in Dover this year to push lawmakers into action.

But the bill faces opposition from some lawmakers and Gov. John Carney (D).

Carney spokesman Jonathan Starkey says he supports both recent legislation that decriminalized the drug and making marijuana available for medical use.

But the governor wants to monitor other states that have legalized pot before taking any additional steps.

Others in the past have called marijuana a “gateway drug” that leads users to try harder substances.

Former gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Colin Bonini (R-Dover South) partly campaigned on legalizing marijuana, but he says he needs to digest the bill further before he can support it.

“We’ve decriminalized it to the point where it’s basically legal already, so we should go ahead and legalize it. I think that’s the best way to regulate it,” Bonini said.

The General Assembly made possessing less than an ounce of the drug a civil fine in 2015 and legalized medical marijuana in 2011.

It took until 2015 for the first dispensary to open with two more expected to be up and running this year.

"We have not seen any adverse effects from either one of these laws taking place," said Keeley, who has sponsored all three bills in recent years.

Senate Majority Leader Margaret Rose Henry (D-Wilmington East), another key sponsor of the bill, says this will solve a longstanding criminal justice disparity between white and minority offenders.

"There is a disproportionate number of African Americans who are arrested for possession of marijuana who end up in our criminal justice system and who unfairly serve prison terms and are ostracized for the rest of their lives as a result," Henry said.

So far, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington State have legalized the recreational sale of the drug.

Marijuana products won’t be taxed at the cash register. Instead, there would be a fee when growers ship weed to the retail stores.

Retail shops can’t be within 1,200 feet of each other within a city or incorporated area, while rural stores have to be separated by at least a mile.

Towns and cities could also pass ordinances to outlaw grow centers, processing plants and storefronts should they choose.

Operating hours would be similar to liquor stores, limited from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. with further restrictions on Sunday sales.  Shops could not open on Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas.

Anyone looking to run a shop, grow facility or processing center would have to pay up to $5,000 to apply, with a $10,000 business license fee every two years.

The final bill is expected to be introduced Thursday.

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