A new, two-step approach to legalizing adult use cannabis in Delaware passed the state House of Representatives last Thursday, exciting local advocates, who are still smarting after an earlier attempt in March crashed and burned.
HB371, which would decriminalize recreational cannabis use and legalize gifting – but not home grow – is the fifth attempt in six years, says Zoë Patchell, executive director of the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network.
“It allows gifting for up to one ounce, and gets rid of searches for alleged odor, and protects from searches, arrests, confiscation, and from a law enforcement encounter that could result in an arrest,” said Patchell.
A second effort, HB372, would legalize the adult use industry, but because the state constitution requires a three-fifths majority of both state houses to levy new taxes, Patchell and other advocates say it will be tough work to pass that measure before the state legislature adjourns on June 30.
“Right now we’re just trying to end the penalties and get any progress we can,” said Patchell, who has a slim hope for the market legalization measure, since the decriminalization effort passed the House 26-14, with three Republicans crossing party lines to vote for it.
Delaware first legalized medical cannabis use in July 2011, and opened its first medical dispensary in June 2015. Today the state only permits “non-profit” compassion centers to distribute cannabis, there are currently six in the state. The non-profit nomenclature is loose, since three of the facilities are managed by Columbia Care, a multi-state operator preparing to merge with Chicago-based cannabis giant, Cresco Labs.
As in many states, Delaware citizen support for adult use legalization outpaces elected official support. A Fall 2018 poll conducted by the University of Delaware found 61% of likely voters supported adult use legalization.
20,630 medical patient cards were issued or renewed in 2021 and the state reported $1,099,878 in cannabis revenue for the fiscal year as of October 2021.
Separating the creation of a legal marketplace from decriminalization was the whole point of this round of legislation, said Laura Sharer, executive director of Delaware NORML.
The legalization legislation sponsor, Rep. Edward Osienski, “tried to give them a one piece bill [before]. But he looked at what other states had done, like Vermont that had a two-step approach. Already in Delaware our lawmakers have been receptive [to this approach]. The votes we got for HB371 are more than HB305,” the bill that failed last March, said Sharer.
Passing decriminalization first may also attract more votes to creating a legal market, said Sharer. But still, Sharer pointed out, one of the biggest differences between March and May is that in the interim, New Jersey’s adult use market went online just across the Delaware River.
“If our neighbors in Jersey have legalized adult use sales, why are we still waiting? Maryland has it on their ballot in November. Virginia legalized. New York too. They know it is not a matter of if, it is when we will legalize,” said Sharer.