How Delaware is lining up to legalize recreational marijuana

Delaware appears to be on the verge of becoming the first state in the Mid-Atlantic to legalize retail sales of marijuana for recreational use by adults.

In Dover on Wednesday, a governor’s task force reviewed changes to a proposed bill that also could make the state the first to legalize cannabis sales through legislation.  New Jersey is considering a similar bill.

About 60 percent of Delaware voters support legalization. But ballot initiatives such as the ones that legalized marijuana in other states are not provided in the state constitutions of Delaware or New Jersey (or Pennsylvania, either). So the measure can’t be put up to a popular vote and must be passed in the statehouses.

“We’re going to get it done,” said Cynthia Ferguson, executive director of the Delaware branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “It’s morally the right thing to do.”

The task force, made up of activists and law enforcement experts, will issue its report at the end of February to Gov. John Carney and the General Assembly, said State Rep. Helene M. Keeley (D., Dover), who is the cosponsor of the bill.

The 62-member legislature — 21 senators,  41 House members — will vote after floor debates later this spring, Keeley said.

Legalization could entice Pennsylvania residents to drive south, much as they do for liquor. It also might hasten New Jersey’s move to legalize.

Passage is far from a done deal. Keeley said many law enforcement officials, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Mid-Atlantic AAA  “don’t want it at all.”

State Rep. Steve Smyk (R., Milton), a former state trooper who represents the 20th District in southern Delaware, said he’s not convinced that his constituents support the bill, but “I will vote the way they want.”

“We’re moving far too fast,” Smyk said. “It’s introducing a new intoxicant into society, and it’s a national issue that’s being shoved into local laws. It’s not a good thing.”

The bill will need support from two-thirds of the Assembly to pass. It has bipartisan support but also naysayers in both parties.

“We’re on the verge,” said John B. Sybert, of Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network. “We’re trying to get one more Republican.”

Advocates recognize that there are several sticking points. One entails budgeting money to retrain state troopers and drug-sniffing dogs. Businesses want a carve-out in the state law that would allow employers to comply with the federal drug-free workplace act.

The Delaware bill would prohibit homegrown cannabis, require training courses for sellers, and limit purchases to one ounce of cannabis per transaction, though it doesn’t specify how often transactions could be made. Because Delaware has no retail sales tax, an excise tax would be added to all sales.

Delaware has had a medical-marijuana program since 2013 and has registered about 3,200 patients. Unlike in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, any doctor can write a cannabis recommendation. But the program, still in its pilot stage, has limped along with a limited supply of strains. After six years, there are only three dispensaries operating statewide, with two of them owned by the former head of the state police.

Legislators in Vermont and New Hampshire are poised to vote on a bill legalizing marijuana in their states, but their proposed laws would prohibit retail sales and allow only homegrown products.