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State lawmakers to consider marijuana legalization once again

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Delaware Public Media
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Delaware lawmakers will again consider whether to permit and regulate the use of recreational marijuana this session.

State Rep. Ed Osienski — the prime sponsor of a pair of bills, one removing penalties for possessing small quantities of marijuana and another establishing a regulatory structure for the production and sale of it — is hopeful the decade-long debate within the General Assembly will end this year with the legalization of recreational marijuana.

Osienski was also the prime sponsor of last year's efforts to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana. The legalization bill narrowly failed to overcome a veto by Gov. John Carney, one of the last remaining Democratic Governors opposed to legalization.

The bills haven’t changed in any substantial ways and Carney’s office says his views remain the same on the subject. This year, however, Osienski says he is in an "open dialogue" with Carney, which he says could help "alleviate a veto."

A half-dozen House Democrats who initially voted for the legalization bill last year later voted against overturning Carney’s veto. But the results of November’s election leave Osienski optimistic about the possibility of overturning a veto from Carney.

“Some of those that flipped are no longer there," he said, referring to former Rep. Andrea Bennett, who opted not to run for reelection in the 32nd district. "We have some new members, some new energy, and I think a lot of them realize that I’m not going to let this go.”

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, however, remains opposed to the legalization bill, but will support the measure establishing market regulations if his colleagues vote to legalize the drug.

After earlier attempts to pass a single bill eliminating penalties for possessing marijuana and establishing a regulatory structure for the industry failed, Osienski opted last year to split the original bill in two.

The simpler of the two bills would allow people over 21 years old to possess so called "personal use quantities" of marijuana, defined as an ounce or less of leaf marijuana and smaller quantities of more concentrated products. Possession of larger quantities or public use would remain a misdemeanor. That bill requires only a simple majority to pass.

The regulatory bill, which involves the creation of an Office of Marijuana Control within the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, would require spending state dollars and therefore needs a three-fifths majority vote to pass. The legislation would allow for up to 30 retail licenses for marijuana vendors within 16 months of the bill's passage, which the state would award based on a scoring system that considers whether applicants pay living wages, offer sick leave and hire a diverse workforce, among other factors.

It would also place a 15 percent enforcement fee on marijuana sales; seven percent of that revenue would be directed to a Justice Reinvestment Fund, which would support a range of services from jail diversion programs to expungement workshops.

Notably, the second bill would allow both indoor and outdoor marijuana operations — an opportunity, Osienski says, for farmers in Kent and Sussex County to develop new revenue streams. "We do have a lot of requirements about setbacks, fencing and security," he said. "It's not just going to be grown out in an open field like lima beans."

While the federal prohibition on recreational marijuana creates barriers developing a marijuana industry in Delaware, Osienski says neighboring states – Maryland and New Jersey – are finding workarounds, including ways to overcome the reluctance of banks to work with marijuana growers or vendors.

“I expect a bank to step up once this becomes effective in Delaware to be a player in this," he said.

Osienski adds strong tax revenues from marijuana sales in New Jersey may also convince some of his more reluctant colleagues to get on board.

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