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State Senate passes marijuana legalization bills

Senator Trey Paradee speaks on the Senate floor in support of marijuana legalization.
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
Senator Trey Paradee speaks on the Senate floor in support of marijuana legalization.

Delaware’s State Senate voted on Tuesday to legalize possession of small quantities of marijuana and establish a regulatory structure for cultivation and sale of the drug.

The basic talking points in Delaware’s long-running debate about marijuana legalization have changed little in the half-decade since the General Assembly first took up the issue.

The basic legalization bill is relatively simple, allowing the possession of so-called 'personal use' quantities of marijuana in various forms.

Establishing a regulatory and tax structure is more complicated. Provisions include creating a licensing system for dispensaries, directing tax revenue to criminal justice reform and addiction prevention programs, and opening opportunities for dispensary workers to unionize.

Senate sponsor Sen. Trey Paradee noted the proposed marijuana sales tax would be substantially lower than in Maryland and New Jersey, which he considers the primary competitors for Delaware’s marijuana industry.

“Delaware will have the lowest tax rate on recreational marijuana in the country," he said. "Why? The focus of [the bill] was never to be a major revenue source for the state. The primary intent has always been to create a new industry with good paying jobs while striking a blow against the thriving illegal marijuana market.”

Paradee's comments stand in contrast to previous efforts by supporters to emphasize the potential tax revenue lost to New Jersey and Maryland, where recreational marijuana is already legal.

Republican support for legalization has grown slowly. Tuesday’s Senate vote revealed one new Republican supporter: freshman State Senator Eric Buckson, who voted in favor of legalizing simple possession of marijuana but opposed the bill establishing a regulatory structure for the cultivation and sale of the drug.

Buckson also chided some of his Democratic colleagues for dismissing Republican concerns about marijuana’s health impacts, including claims by Senator Bryant Richardson that marijuana use could cause violent psychosis — a claim challenged by Lieutenant Governor Bethany Hall Long, among others.

“I don’t take this decision lightly. I know the cost associated with this, and I’m going to do it anyway," Buckson said, citing the relative unpopularity of marijuana legalization in his Senate district. "But I don’t think it’s fair to say, ‘my stats are right, yours are not, begone.’”

The regulatory bill required and received a two-thirds majority vote, whereas the basic legalization bill only required a simple majority.

Both bills now go to Governor John Carney, who has remained opposed to marijuana legalization — one of the last holdouts among Democratic governors.

His position also stands in contrast with Lieutenant Governor Hall Long, who issued a statement in support of legalization after Tuesday's vote. "I have been a longtime advocate for legalizing marijuana in Delaware and as a member of the General Assembly, I voted for both medical and de-criminalization legislation," she wrote. "Moving forward, we need to avoid mistakes made in other states and regulate marijuana properly to keep it out of the hands of our children, to ensure product and workplace safety and to also ensure fairness for businesses and for the medical use of marijuana."

State Rep. Ed Osienski, the prime sponsor of both bills, says he is optimistic that ongoing discussions with Carney could prevent a veto.

"We have open lines of communication," he said. "The clock doesn't start until the Governor picks up the bill, and knowing that this isn't his highest priority, we don't know when that will be." Once the bills reach Carney's desk, the governor has ten days to decide whether to sign them.

Only the legalization bill reached Carney’s desk during last year's legislative session, and House backers weren’t able to assemble the supermajority to overcome his veto.

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