(Seth Perlman, Associated Press file)

Delaware introduces marijuana legalization, but many critics remain

DOVER, Del. — A bill that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana in Delaware was released Wednesday by a House committee and now goes to the full House for consideration.

The legislation, which seeks to regulate and tax marijuana in the same manner as alcohol, cleared its first legislative hurdle on a 10-2 vote in the House Revenue and Finance Committee.

While the bill would not allow people to grow their own marijuana, it would allow adults over age 21 to legally possess less than an ounce of marijuana for personal use.

Consumers would pay an excise tax of $50 an ounce, although the actual retail price would be set by a state marijuana commissioner.

Marijuana sales would not be allowed in establishments licensed to sell alcohol.

The legislation would create a commission to regulate, license and tax the marijuana industry, allowing licenses for up to 40 retail stores and 75 cultivation facilities. Those businesses, along with testing and product manufacturing facilities, would pay an application fee of $5,000 and a $10,000 licensing fee every two years.

Supporters of the bill said it would help reduce the black market for marijuana, and the associated crime that comes with it, while raising revenue for the state.

“Make no bones about it — people die because marijuana is still traded on the black market,” said James Spadola, a former Newark police officer who now runs a criminal justice reform group called Delaware Law Enforcement for Progress.

Opponents argued that the bill carries unknown health risks, and that it would lead to more drug addiction and homelessness, decreased school performance and productivity, and more impaired-driving traffic accidents. They also said there currently is no accurate test to determine whether a driver is impaired by THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Dover, said the bill could unleash a possible epidemic of drug use with unforeseen consequences.

“Once we cross this threshold, there’s no turning back,” he warned.

Groups opposing the measure include AAA Mid-Atlantic, the Delaware Police Chiefs Council, the Medical Society of Delaware, the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, and the Delaware Healthcare Association, a trade organization that represents hospitals.

Camden Police Chief William Bryson, chairman of the police chiefs council, said Colorado and Washington have seen increased crime and increased black market sales since legalizing marijuana.

“We’re going to have the same issue here,” he said. “Delaware law enforcement doesn’t need any extra work. That’s what this bill is going to bring to us.”

Chief sponsor Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, said that if the bill were to pass and become law, Delaware would be the first state to legalize recreational marijuana while prohibiting people from growing their own.

“I believe truly that that will diminish the black market,” she said.

Keeley said she will move slowly on the legislation in an effort to address various concerns, and that it will not be voted on this month.

Democratic Gov. John Carney has said he does not support legalization at this time.

Currently Delaware has decriminalized marijuana possession of an ounce or less, resulting in a civil offense punishable by a fine of $100.