Last month the Delaware legislature passed cannabis adult use legalization – but not sales – by a three-fifths vote in both houses. It was enough to bypass a gubernatorial override from a governor who had never made more than ambiguous statements on legalization, in a state with 61% support for adult use legalization and an already thriving medical market.
Under those circumstances, Zoë Patchell, executive director of the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network, and other activists were enthusiastically optimistic their state would legalize. But then, Democratic Governor John Carney issued the state’s first veto since 1977 and votes peeled off the three-fifths majority in the House, sustaining the veto, keeping adult use illegal in Delaware.
To better understand what happened, Grown In caught up with Patchell, now that she’s had a few weeks to digest the dramatic letdown.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Grown In: When I spoke to you last month, you were pretty confident. Can you tell me in a nutshell: What do you think went wrong?
Zoë Patchell: Well, despite the bill passing with 3/5th super majority in both chambers, as well as bipartisan support out of the House, a number of members ended up changing their vote, including some of the co-sponsors, to this important reform. House Democratic leadership did not support the override and it’s certainly no secret here in Delaware that the [Democratic] Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf and the [Democratic] governor [John Carney] have been actively working against cannabis legalization. And some of the things that are not being reported here in the state of Delaware is that the governor actively worked with the Speaker of the House to kill both bills, HB 371 and 372. After the veto, the House leadership decided not to support the override.
Grown In: You had five votes flip the other way in the House. Three Democrats, two Republicans. Why do you think that happened?
Patchell: We had a total of six votes change.
Grown In: The majority leader, that’s who you’re talking about?
Patchell: Yes, she was one of the co-sponsors to the legislation and she ended up abstaining from the vote instead of representing her constituents.
Grown In: Do you have ideas specifically on why each of those votes flipped?
Patchell: We’ve asked several of the members why their votes changed and the best answer that we could get was that we didn’t have the votes to pass it. So they ended up changing their votes.
But there’s some rumors going around that there were some horses traded as they say here in Delaware, where a number of the lawmakers got some kind of benefit out of voting against the override. I don’t know what those benefits would be. Basically we were Delaware Way-ed, is what we call it, it’s “the Delaware Way”, when a group of lawmakers team up with special interests and kill popular legislation.
Grown In: Who do you think was managing this? You think this was managed by the speaker, or managed by the governor?
Patchell: I think that it happened due to the Speaker of the House actively working with Governor Carney and law enforcement to defeat these very popular measures.
Grown In: Delaware hasn’t had a veto since 1977. Do you think that that factored into things?
Patchell: It definitely put a lot of pressure on our legislature to not support the override, but when you have such significant public support here in the state of Delaware I think that the lawmakers stood on the wrong side of History.
Grown In: You keep talking about how it’s a popular issue. Is this a strong enough issue that you think people could be voted out of office?
Patchell: It’s difficult because some of the lawmakers that voted against this are running unopposed and have run unopposed for quite some time or at least don’t have any viable candidate running against them. Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf has a very large warchest here in the state of Delaware. It’s very difficult to run candidates against such a powerful lawmaker.
Grown In: You’re saying not just him but he would support other candidates as well.
Patchell: So interestingly enough, that’s what we heard from at least one member of the legislature that changed their vote, a Republican member that changed their vote. One that said that the governor would use his warchest against members who voted in favor of the override, especially a member of the opposite party.
Grown In: So the governor really made this a personal issue.
Patchell: It was definitely a personal issue and in hindsight, we think that if we could have passed the legislation before his re-election that we possibly could have at least had him take no action and allow this bill to become law. But now with him in a lame duck session and no future prospects for a political office, he had nothing stopping him from acting against the will of Delawareans and vetoing this very important criminal justice reform.
Grown In: Just today I found a few underground cannabis delivery services that serve Delaware online. What do you think happens to Delaware and cannabis?
Patchell: Well, Delaware doesn’t exist in a bubble and it’s just illogical, unjust, and fiscally irresponsible to continue to enforce cannabis prohibition here in Delaware – especially when the legal sales of cannabis is just a short drive away for most Delawareans. So obviously, you know, the veto and the failure of the veto override certainly doesn’t deter consumers here in the state of Delaware.
Cannabis prohibition does not reduce the use, supply, or demand of cannabis even when the governor vetoes a bill that would legalize, that’s certainly not going to change anyone consuming cannabis here in the state of Delaware. As a result of the failure of the veto override, thousands of people will continue to fall victim to bad policy
Grown In: Are you planning to take another run at it next year?
Patchell: Oh yes. We’re continuing to work on the legislation. We’re going to continue with all of our public education campaigns, all of our citizens lobbying, as well as our outreach and hopefully work through the election to find lawmakers that are willing to override a veto because unfortunately we still have Governor Carney who won’t leave office until 2025. So, we’re going to continue to try to fill the seats of those who change their votes with those who are willing to enact the will of the people here in Delaware.