Legislation to decriminalize possession and personal use of small amounts of marijuana heads to the Senate floor on Thursday, with an amendment expected that could send the legislation back to the Delaware House of Representatives.
As written, the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, would allow Delawareans to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and use the drug privately without facing criminal sanctions. Criminal penalties would be replaced with a civil $100 fine.
An amendment expected in the Senate would reduce the amount of marijuana subject only to civil penalties to half of an ounce. The legislation cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Law enforcement groups have forcefully opposed the legislation.But a representative from the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council said the group will not actively oppose the bill if lawmakers adopt the amendment.
The House passed the decriminalization measure earlier this month. Gov. Jack Markell has indicated he will sign the legislation.
During Wednesday’s committee hearing, Robert Capecchi, a lobbyist with the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, called the decriminalization measure “good meaningful reform for the state of Delaware.”
Nineteen other states and the District of Columbia have stopped charging citizens criminally for possessing small amounts of marijuana. There also is evidence that the law is disproportionately enforced along racial lines.
Blacks in Delaware were three times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2010, despite accounting for a much smaller portion of the population, according to a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Marijuana arrests under current law threaten to saddle Delawareans with a criminal record, something the legislation’s supporters believe is unnecessary for a drug that they say poses few risks.
“It’s safer for me to choose cannabis over alcohol,” Zoe Patchell, a Delaware marijuana activist with Cannabis Bureau of Delaware, said during committee testimony on Wednesday.
The bill’s supporters have given some ground to opponents, especially those in the law enforcement community. Amendments strictly define a public place where it would remain criminal to consume marijuana. Public places include any outdoor space within 10 feet of any window or sidewalk.
Delawareans under 21 would face criminal penalties if caught with marijuana under an amendment added in the House.
And it would remain criminal to consume marijuana in a moving vehicle under the current legislation.
But police groups are still concerned that decriminalizing marijuana possession could limit their ability to initiate searches that could lead to even more substantial charges for drug dealers and traffickers.
Selling marijuana would remain criminal under the current legislation. Republicans continued to express concern with the decriminalization measure at the committee hearing on Wednesday.
“I’m very sympathetic to the issue of young people and having records that may keep them from getting a job,” said Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley. “I’m also concerned about the message that’s being sent to younger people.”
Lavelle said “there are not hordes of people in Delaware prisons for simple possession of marijuana” and suggested that marijuana activists would be back in Legislative Hall pushing for marijuana legalization soon after the decriminalization measure passes.
Contact Jonathan Starkey at (302) 983-6756, on Twitter @jwstarkey or at email@example.com.