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Opposition makes its case against legalizing recreational marijuana in Delaware

Delaware Public Media

While polls show a majority of Delawareans support legalization, many remain opposed, and some organizations have concerns legal weed could only bring more crime and danger to the state.


Delaware Public Media’s Roman Battaglia talks to those putting up roadblocks approving recreational cannabis in the First State.


With each subsequent year, the effort to legalize recreational marijuana in Delaware gains more traction.


But it's yet to be enough to overcome an uphill climb to approval.  Because it involves a tax, the bill requires a 2/3rds majority to pass both houses, leaving almost no wiggle room for Democratic lawmakers trying to get it to Gov. John Carney’s desk. 


And so far, the bill has failed to reach that threshold, with some Democrats withholding support.


The latest version of a recreational cannabis bill currently waits in the House Appropriations committee, where it faces scrutiny over funding the program, as well as what to do with potential tax revenue that comes with the sale of legal weed.


Supporters of legalization have worked to address issues raised by that scrutiny from critics. Back in 2017, a task force looked at those issues and made recommendations for a path to legalize marijuana in the state.


But opponents almost kept that report from seeing the light of day. It’s release passed by just one vote.


One notable group objecting then and now is the state’s law enforcement community.


It takes aim at one of the chief goals of the bill - eliminating the marijuana black market. The prime sponsor of this year’s bill, State Rep. Ed Osienski, says it would do that - taking control out of the hands of gangs and criminals while generating tax revenue that can be used to fund public education and substance abuse programs.

Credit Delaware General Assembly
State Rep. Ed Osienski, the prime sponsor the the legal marijuana bill this year.


Jeffery Horvath - executive director of the Delaware Police Chief’s council - disputes that - saying it hasn’t rung true in other states.


“In Colorado they talked about that, that’s the big promise that the legal recreational marijuana industry makes; it’ll get rid of the black market,” he says. “In Colorado they told us the exact opposite. They said it made the black market stronger, and it created a new market called the grey market. So now you’ve got people that are legally growing marijuana, they’re growing more than they can sell, and it is disappearing out the back door and being sold in a grey market. So it’s legally grown and illegally sold.”


When marijuana is legalized in a state, officials often see a massive boom in the production of the plant — so much that consumption can’t keep up.  And because the drug is still illegal at the federal level, all marijuana produced in a state legally  must be consumed there.


So Horvath says extra buds make their way to the criminal market, where they can be trafficked out of state.


Oregon was one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, doing so by statewide referendum back in 2014.


And since then, Jason Myers with the Oregon Sheriffs Association says that state has grappled with a marijuana surplus.


“The amount that’s grown in Oregon is like tenfold of what could be consumed in Oregon,” Myers says. “So it’s going somewhere, it’s leaking outside of the system and that’s our concern because often time there is big revenue in it and along with that comes criminal activity and I think that’s a big issue that our sheriffs in Southern Oregon are facing right now.”


This Oregon surplus has left over a six-year supply of weed sitting in warehouses and processing plants.


On top of that, marijuana inspectors in that state are stretched thin. Without proper coverage of inspectors to visit dispensaries and farms, it can be easier for those growers to slip surplus weed into the black market instead of leaving it to expire in a warehouse.


Myers says Oregon can be an example of what can be learned when legalizing recreational marijuana in other states.


“The legislature in Oregon has had to act on this every session to create a new round of regulations and control — and there’s something that can be learned from that because we’re kinda learning as we go,” Myers says. “We’re kinda building the ship as you’re shipping out in the ocean. I think in your situation they have the opportunity to be able to learn from others if that’s a direction that the legislature decides to go, that they can put the proper protocols and parameters in place to make sure that it’s done in a manner that’s safe and fair and good for the community.”


Some of those lessons have already been taken into consideration in Delaware. To combat a huge influx of marijuana into the state, there are strict licence caps at each stage of production, which attempt to limit the number of cannabis producers and prevent what happened in Oregon.


But some marijuana advocates argue the cap isn't high enough, and a surplus is actually good for consumers.


In Oregon, prices dropped significantly with the production boom, making the drug more affordable for both recreational and medical users.


Osienski says Delaware proposed license cap strikes a balance between maintaining the right amount of supply and limiting a surplus. Plus, the bill gives a state marijuana director the ability to hand out more licenses based on supply and demand.


Horvath says visiting Colorado and taught him other lessons about possible pitfalls of legalization.


One is handling Edibles. Edibles were only recently allowed in Delaware’s medical marijuana market, and no compassion center has yet to produce any. But the new recreational cannabis bill would fully allow edible products into the market, including gummies, drinks and more.

Credit Margo Amala / Unsplash


Horvath says talking with sheriffs in Colorado edibles caused the most problems there.


“You know these edibles are designed like gummies bears and cookies and brownies, things that are attractive to children,” he says. “And we’ve had issues with children having to spend several days in the hospital because they take such strong doses THC in these edibles. Issues with people that, you get a cookie and it tells you to eat one eighth of the cookie — and after an hour they don’t feel much so they eat more of the cookie and before you know it they have an issue where they think they’re medically having a problem and the ambulance is called.”


In fact, Delaware’s 2017 task force recommended changes to the way edibles are produced and sold to make them less appealing to children — and those recommendations made it into this year's bill.


Under HB 150, edibles can’t be produced to look like candy or resemble cartoon characters, and can’t contain additives designed to make the product appealing to children.


The containers also have to be designed like pill bottles, difficult to open for anyone under 5.


Horvath adds it’s not just the appeal edibles have to children, it’s the example parents set by consuming them.


“Kids see their parents doing that and they’re thinking oh I’ll be 18 in a few years or 21 in a few years, whatever the legal limit age is gonna be, I can sneak it now, and more likely to do it,” Horvath says.


But the jury is still out on whether legalizing cannabis increases usage among teens.


One study in Canada, which legalized recreational use nationwide in 2018, showed youth cannabis use remained fairly stable both before and after recreational use was legalized; around one third of teens in Canada have used the drug.


Here in the states, a study in California found legalizing recreational sales of marijuana had an insignificant impact on usage by young adults. But the study also reported legalization may have prompted slightly increased interest in the drug among women and e-cigarette users.


But, most studies say it’s still too early to draw any definitive conclusions on the impact of marijuana legalization, less than 10 years of data isn’t enough to identify clear trends,


The law enforcement community is often backed up by another group in the fight against legalizing cannabis - traffic safety advocates.


AAA has long been against legalizing the drug, citing the wide-reaching effects it has on all aspects of driving.


Ken Grant is the manager of public and government affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic.


He says the culture of driving while under the influence of marijuana is something that needs to be addressed before considering legalization of the drug.


“Are people currently driving while under the influence of marijuana? Yes they are,” he says. “But once you put that label of legal in front of it, for every adult in the state, you have several people who say, oh, then I can go ahead and consume whatever I wish — weather it’s through edibles through smoking, through waxing whatever and go out, get behind the wheel of a car and start driving. And that’s just dangerous.”


Grant compares marijuana use and driving to the decades long effort to get people to stop drinking and driving. 


“That shift about drunk driving, that has taken decades to get people to understand just how dangerous it is,” Grant says. “I mean, it wasn’t too long ago when you could turn on the TV set or watch a movie and see a person at the bar proudly proclaim hey I’ll have one for the road. That obviously is no longer socially acceptable. It's a problem that still persists even in the midst of all this education. Fortunately, we have seen a steady decline, finally over the past ten years, of drunk driving fatalities. However, at the same time we’re seeing an increase in drugged driving fatalities.”


And the amount of people getting high and driving is increasing. According to the CDC, that number has been increasing every year, while the number of people drinking and driving continues to decline.


Grant says more investment in education is needed to shift the culture on marijuana use in America. Many people don’t know marijuana significantly increases the chance of an accident while out on the road.


There’s also the problem of enforcement. If you’ve ever seen someone get pulled over for drunk driving, you may recognize a small device called a breathalyzer. That tool allows law enforcement to quickly measure someone’s blood alcohol level, which tells them exactly how drunk someone is.


 But right now, a marijuana breathalyzer doesn’t yet exist outside of field tests.


“You know the standard line I hear is, well, we’ll just treat driving under the influence of the marijuana the same way as we treat driving under the influence of alcohol,” Grant says. “Again it sounds good but it is not practical at this point, there just is not that roadside test available.”


Most drug testing nowadays can only tell you if somebody has used drugs within a certain period of time, but not whether you’re currently high.


Law enforcement utilize specially trained officers, known as drug recognition officers, who can recognize the medical signs of impairment and determine if somebody is high while driving.


But calling in one of those special officers takes time, and the training is an intensive, week long process many small police departments can’t afford to send their officers away too according to Grant.


There are a few types of breathalyzers in the works that would detect current marijuana use, using technology to detect THC levels in the breath that only remain while someone is stoned. But rollout is still slow and the technology has yet to be proven effective in the field.


Grant adds if more money was put towards training these recognition officers, it would ease the strain on law enforcement to prevent people from getting behind the wheel while stoned. 


The 2017 cannabis task force recommended these funding boosts, but the current bill does not provide direct funding for this purpose.


Some groups resistant to marijuana legalization are steadfast in their opposition. Horvath says the Police Chiefs Council wasn’t invited to the table to help draft this year’s legislation, but he adds it wouldn’t have mattered, the council would have opposed it regardless.


Others, like AAA, say changes responding to their concerns could sway them.


But the immediate question at hand is whether their opposition is enough to derail Delaware joining the growing list of states legalizing recreational marijuana during this legislative session.


Roman Battaglia is a corps member withReport for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Roman Battaglia grew up in Portland, Ore, and now reports for Delaware Public Media as a Report For America corps member. He focuses on politics, elections and legislation activity at the local, county and state levels.
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