The Delaware State House in Dover. Credit: Jim Bowen / Flickr

In 2017, it seemed as if Delaware would be one of the first states to allow legal adult use cannabis.

Five years, multiple bills, and continuous resistance from Gov. John Carney left The First State floundering to become an adopter of adult use at all.

“Legalization has proven quite difficult,” said Zoë Patchell, the board chair and president of the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network. “We were the first state to garner simple majority on a legalization bill back in 2018. But because of the state constitution, our bill requires super majority and we don’t have voter initiative like other states. So when (the first) bill came up for vote, we failed by four votes.” 

Delaware House Representative Edward Osienski looks to change that.

In 2019, he began an attempt to adopt similar legislation. Three years in, Rep. Osienski has an updated adult use cannabis legalization bill, House Bill 305, that has gained traction and recently passed through the House Health and Human Development committee. 

“This is the third version of the bill,” Osienski said. “I’m hoping the momentum and everything is in line this year to get it passed. I think prohibition from the beginning was a bad choice. .. It’s about time we realized that.”

Rep. Osienski and Patchell cite favorable polling numbers regarding legalization, in the 60 percent range. Osienski hopes the numerous changes to HB 305 will be enough to break through.

“We need to move forward,” he said. “I’m not really doing it for the additional tax revenue. My motivation is, one, ending the illegal market, and legalizing (cannabis) would create an industry and jobs.”

Recent movement to finalize legalization in neighboring states New Jersey and Maryland could pressure Delaware lawmakers to reconsider any doubts they have.

“It’s a completely unenforceable policy, it always has been,” said Patchell. “But at this point, it’s irrational to believe that cannabis prohibition is going to work.

“Throwing tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money every year at an unenforceable policy is just fiscally irresponsible when safe, legal access to cannabis for adults is just a simple drive away.”

Additional tax revenue would benefit the state. A previous report from a Delaware state auditor estimated a $43 million benefit based on moderate usage numbers and a 20 percent tax rate. The current bill calls for a 15 percent tax rate, putting estimates closer to the $30 million range.

Either number is big business. Add in benefits of crime reduction and creation of jobs and Rep. Osienski says the decision is a no-brainer.

“There’s a hundred thousand Delawarians that have admitted to cannabis use,” continued Osienski. “They will soon have the ability to go over the bridge to New Jersey and purchase legally. Hopefully this is all making it harder for colleagues to oppose this.”

Delaware currently has six medical-only vertical compassionate care centers in operation. Those centers will not be early adopters if legalization passes, as had been the proposal in previous bills, but will have the same opportunities to apply for licensing and open separate adult-use facilities.

Rep. Osienski considered concerns regarding product availability for adult-use while still supporting medical patients. His bill would limit recreational consumers to one ounce at a time, and strives for support of social equity licensees. 

HB 305 would create four license types (cultivation, manufacturing, laboratory, and retail) under three different categories (open, social equity, and micro licenses). 125 initial licenses will be offered in the first two years, with 77 of those designated for social equity and micro-business candidates. Out of the initial 30 retail licenses HB 305 would permit, half of those would be for social equity applicants. 

“We have some policy folks and my legislative aide who have been steadily researching this ever-evolving industry,” he said. “So, we have been studying some of the first states, from Colorado to California, to see what they did well and what they have done wrong.

“We had to look at this and say, if you have been arrested for marijuana or a parent has been arrested, we wanted to make sure there were opportunities to get into this new industry. We are hoping that will help us get this passed.”

The bill was released to the House Appropriations Committee last week. A Senate committee hearing follows before landing on the governor’s desk.

“He will have three choices,” Rep. Osienski said. “Veto it, sign it, or not sign it and allow it to become law after 70 days.

“My hope is he signs it.”