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Marijuana legalization clears State Senate, heads to Gov. Carney

Delaware Public Media

The State Senate passed a bill legalizing possession of small quantities of marijuana on Thursday.

The bill is one piece of a plan to legalize the use and sale of marijuana in Delaware. It legalizes possession of an ounce or less of marijuana for people 21 and older. As currently written, the bill would only cover leaf marijuana, leaving out products made from other parts of the plant like seed oils.

The bill’s senate sponsor, State Sen. Trey Paradee (D-Dover), says legalization presents a chance to stop creating criminal records for people arrested for possession. He added that the potential $40 million in tax revenue annually from marijuana sales is an added benefit.

State Sen. Laura Sturgeon (D-Hockessin) also argued that prohibiting marijuana possession has not succeeded in preventing Delawareans from using the drug.

"Prohibition hasn’t worked and doesn’t work," she said, "and if there is a gateway drug, it’s alcohol, and nobody will pitch prohibiting that because prohibition did not work.”

But some Senators, including some Democrats, worry about the unintended consequences of legalizing marijuana without a companion bill regulating sales. That companion bill requires a three-fifths majority vote to pass because it would impact state revenues; Thursday’s bill only needed a simple majority. Democratic legislators split the effort in two after earlier efforts to simultaneously legalize possession and regulate the production and sale of marijuana failed.

State Sen. Colin Bonini (R-Dover) argues legalization alone will funnel dollars to the illegal drug market.

“The reality is that we might as well call this the ‘encourage legal behavior act," he said, "because where are you going to get it? You’re going to a drug dealer!”

Though Bonini said he is supportive of legalization in principle, his support depends on "a safe regulatory environment" — something he says remains up in the air.

Paradee says he shares some of those concerns, though he urged his colleagues to support the bill to regulate marijuana sales when it comes to the Senate for a vote later this session.

“If we pass this bill and not the other one, I will personally ask the governor to veto this bill,” he told his colleagues on Thursday.

Legalization passed the state Senate 13-7 and now heads to Gov. Carney, who has previously expressed opposition to legalization, but has not indicated what he's do if a bill reached his desk.

Carney can sign the bill, veto it or let it take effect without his signature.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.