Delaware Public Media

House committee overwhelmingly approves legal pot bill

May 10, 2017

Legislation legalizing recreational marijuana cleared its first hurdle in Dover Wednesday, but its first true test is yet to come.

A House committee overwhelmingly voted to send a proposal fully legalizing marijuana to the floor Wednesday, despite apprehension from Republicans.

Zoe Patchell, president of the Cannabis Bureau of Delaware, says she’s hopeful it’s a good sign for what is sure to be a tough legislative fight ahead.

“You cannot work with drug dealers. We must tax and regulate this to address all the problems and collateral consequences of cannabis prohibition,” Patchell said.

The measure would let anyone over 21-years-old buy weed from retail stores.

Unlike most other states that have fully legalized pot, you wouldn’t be able to grow your own plants at home.

Rep. Lyndon Yearick – a Camden area Republican – was one of the two no votes. He says he’s worried it’ll degrade the health of people of all ages.

“Once we cross this threshold there’s no turning back. We have to look at the overall societal costs, unintended consequences and weigh that against what may be revenue provided to the state,” Yearick said.

An estimate from the Marijuana Policy Project pegs Delaware raking in about $22 million during the first full year of implementation.

Public comments during the hearing were split.

John Peters, a retired union carpenter, says he should have the right to choose whether or not he uses pot – which he’s been doing since he was 17-years-old.

“Practically every day I went to work I was consuming cannabis. Some of this trim work in this building you can see, I did that. When I did that I was consuming cannabis.”

Rev. Thomas Laymon runs the Sunday Breakfast Mission in Wilmington. It houses nearly 300 homeless people and counsels those with addiction issues, which Laymon says have been growing steadily over the past few decades.

“Accessibility is the issue and accessibility breeds more availability. Availability and accessibility breeds experimentation,” he said.

Heavy-hitting lobbying groups including cops, hospitals, the state Chamber of Commerce all tried to bury the bill in committee.

AAA Mid-Atlantic in particular has launched one of the most full-throated campaigns, saying police can’t accurately measure how impaired someone is who’s driving while high.

“I think it’s premature to sort of jump on the bandwagon and sort of paint the plane as we’re flying it on marijuana and how to manage that from a highway safety standpoint when we could benefit from taking a little bit more time, pausing and watching what we can learn from other states,” said Jake Nelson, a national AAA official.

Prayus Tailor, who heads the Medical Society of Delaware, says there’s not enough research to determine the possible health risks of smoking pot, which is why his group opposes the bill.

“We rely on having sound, clinically proven, evidenced-based data to guide what we do for our patients and how to counsel them and there is very little, if any, clinical data, that supports the recreational use of marijuana,” Nelson said.

The Medical Society of Delaware also opposes a measure that would expand the list of conditions and disorders eligible for a medical marijuana card for similar reasons. The bill would include anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Proponents blame the lack of research on tight federal regulations.

The feds have only licensed a single university to study marijuana since it became a Schedule I drug – the most severe designation – in 1970.

It’s unknown whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime opponent of pot, will consider rolling back any regulations from the Obama Administration.

So far, eight states and Washington D.C. have fully legalized weed – all by a ballot referendum, which isn’t an option available to Delawareans.

Vermont lawmakers became the first legislative body on Wednesday to do the same. It still needs the governor’s signature.

Gov. John Carney (D) has publicly opposed full legalization, while supporting Delaware’s medical marijuana program and decriminalization.

The bill isn't expected on the House agenda until June at the earliest.