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Gov. Carney to let marijuana bills become law without his signature

Delaware Public Media

Gov. John Carney opts to allow legislation legalizing the possession of recreational marijuana and establishing a regulatory structure for its cultivation and sale to become law without his signature.

Delaware becomes the twenty-second state to legalize recreational marijuana after a prolonged stalemate between its backers and Gov. Carney, who remains one of the few Democratic governors opposed to marijuana legalization.

While Carney says he won’t veto the legislation a second time — lawmakers failed to overcome his veto last session — he emphasized his views have not changed.

Though he remains concerned about marijuana’s health impacts and the possibility legalization could contribute to an uptick in impaired driving, Carney argues that after a half-decade of debate, the state’s energy is better-spent on more pressing concerns, including educational outcomes and housing affordability.

"I understand there are those who share my views who will be disappointed in my decision not to veto this legislation," Carney wrote. "I came to this decision because I believe we’ve spent far too much time focused on this issue, when Delawareans face more serious and pressing concerns every day. It’s time to move on."

State Rep. Ed Osienski, who shepherded marijuana legalization legislation in the General Assembly over the past six years, says that the time spent on the issue didn't prevent lawmakers from pursuing other priorities. Nevertheless, he says he is excited to move on to other challenges.

“After five years of countless meetings, debates, negotiations and conversations, I’m grateful we have reached the point where Delaware has joined a growing number of states that have legalized and regulated adult recreational marijuana for personal use," Osienski said. “I understand the governor’s personal opposition to legalization, so I especially appreciate him listening to the thousands of residents who support this effort and allowing it to become law.

The legislation legalizing possession of small quantities of recreational marijuana takes effect immediately, but Osienski says establishing recreational marijuana cultivation operations and dispensaries is a longer process.

"We'll need to be patient," he said. Before licenses can be issued, Carney will select a commissioner to manage the industry and the General Assembly will form an oversight committee, including representatives from the Division of Public Health and the Department of Agriculture. "Then they have to start the process of promulgating regulations, and the first applications for licenses won't go out for another 16 months," he added.

The state will issue retail licenses last, and the state will reserve some licenses for entrepreneurs from disadvantaged communities and local microbusinesses, offering technical assistance and reduced fees to encourage those businesses to secure a foothold in Delaware’s recreational marijuana industry.

That legislation will impose a 15 percent marijuana control enforcement fee on recreational marijuana sales, directing roughly half of that revenue to criminal justice reform efforts like diversion or expungement programs. The law also allows Delaware municipalities to prohibit recreational marijuana-related commerce, including dispensaries, within their boundaries.

Meanwhile, Osienski says that far more work is needed to address policy gaps surrounding Delaware's soon-to-be recreational marijuana industry. He pointed to the state's existing medical marijuana dispensaries, which are concerned that the recreational industry could undermine their business. "Maybe we can find a way to reduce costs for patients, maybe they won't have to get a renewed license every year," he said. "We will work to find a way to make sure they're not put under."

Full text of Gov. Carney's marijuana bills statement:

“In the coming days, I will allow House Bill 1 and House Bill 2 to be enacted into Delaware law without my signature. These two pieces of legislation remove all state-level civil and criminal penalties from simple marijuana possession and create a highly regulated industry to conduct recreational marijuana sales in Delaware. As I’ve consistently said, I believe the legalization of recreational marijuana is not a step forward. I support both medical marijuana and Delaware’s decriminalization law because no one should go to jail for possessing a personal use quantity of marijuana. And today, they do not.

“I want to be clear that my views on this issue have not changed. And I understand there are those who share my views who will be disappointed in my decision not to veto this legislation. I came to this decision because I believe we’ve spent far too much time focused on this issue, when Delawareans face more serious and pressing concerns every day. It’s time to move on.

“I remain concerned about the consequences of a recreational marijuana industry in our state. I’m concerned especially about the potential effects on Delaware’s children, on the safety of our roadways, and on our poorest neighborhoods, where I believe a legal marijuana industry will have a disproportionately negative impact. Those concerns are why I could not put my signature to either House Bill 1 or House Bill 2.

“I recognize that many legislators disagree - and I respect the legislative process. I also do not believe prolonging debate on this issue best serves Delawareans. Delaware families want great schools for their kids. They want good jobs and affordable, safe communities free of crime. And they expect - rightly so - that we’ll spend taxpayer dollars in a way that’s both responsible and sustainable. That’s where we should focus our time and energy in the weeks and months ahead.

“As we implement House Bill 1 and House Bill 2, we will do everything in our power to protect children from accessing marijuana and marijuana-related products; prevent Delawareans and Delaware visitors from driving under the influence of marijuana; and closely evaluate the placement of marijuana dispensaries and other businesses, to ensure they do not become a blight on already disadvantaged communities. My goal will be to ensure that Delaware has a robust regulatory system that protects the interests of the most vulnerable Delawareans, to avoid the many challenges we’ve seen in other states, and to get back to focusing on issues that are most important for Delaware families.”

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