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Delaware marijuana legalization bill defeated in House vote

March 11, 2022 GMT

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A bill to legalize recreational marijuana use by adults in Delaware and establish a state-run pot industry was defeated in the state House on Thursday.

Members of the Democrat-led chamber voted 23-14 in favor the legislation, but it required a three-fifths majority of 25 votes because it would impose a new tax. No Republicans voted in favor of the bill, and four lawmakers, including two Democrats, chose not to vote.

“I’m just stunned it’s taking this long,” said chief bill sponsor Ed Osienski, a Newark Democrat who has sponsored three separate legalization bills over the past three years. Thursday marked the first time any of them received a floor vote.

Osienski said Delaware is the only state in the country with a Democratic governor and Democrat-controlled legislature that has not approved legalization: “We’re unique.”

After years of tweaking his proposals to try to garner more support, Osienski said the strongest opposition is coming from the law enforcement community and Democratic Gov. John Carney’s administration.

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“I’m going to keep plugging at it. I’m not going to quit,” Osiesnki vowed.

Among those opposing the bill Thursday was Rep. Mike Smith, a moderate Republican who was the lone GOP member of the Health and Human Development Committee to vote in January to release the bill for consideration by the full House.

Smith’s vote came after majority Democrats rejected several amendments he had introduced Thursday. His proposals included adding felony convictions for violating Delaware’s tax code or Controlled Substance Act to the criteria the state could consider in deciding whether to issue someone a marijuana industry license.

“I came here today to vote for the legalization of marijuana,” Smith told fellow lawmakers, adding that he requested rolls calls on his amendments “just to prove that you guys do not care about bipartisanship, and this state needs to change.”

“I hope people remember this moment, because you killed the legalization of marijuana,” Smith added.

Osienski said Smith was being “totally disingenuous” in introducing amendments so late.

“I’ve been working with Republicans, ... and the first time I saw his amendments was today,” he said.

The bill proposed the creation a state-controlled and licensed pot industry that supporters argue would eliminate the black market while creating jobs and boosting Delaware’s tax coffers. It also sought to legalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana by adults 21 and older but prohibits people from growing their own pot. The state would instead oversee a manufacturing and distribution industry and levy a 15% tax on retail sales.

Opponents have argued that legalization would lead to increased marijuana use among teens and young adults, expose business owners to liability, and result in more traffic deaths and injuries. They also say it would do little to eliminate illegal sales.

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The Associated Press reported in January that the legalization of marijuana in California had done little to discourage black market sales in that state, and that some California licensees are simultaneously participating in the black market — whose estimated value of $8 billion is roughly double the amount of legal sales — in order to make a profit.

As of January, 18 states, along with the District of Columbia, had legalized recreational use of marijuana.

In Delaware, however, administration officials have expressed several concerns about legalization. Public health officials have said, for example, that lower licensing fees for recreational pot facilities compared to fees for existing medical marijuana facilities will lead to a shift to recreational production.

Agriculture and public health officials have argued that outdoor cultivation poses security and product safety risks, while state finance officials have said the bill does not address tax enforcement and banking issues involving a product that remains illegal under federal law.

In an effort to broaden support for his bill, Osienski made several changes to last year’s version. They included adding the requirement of a comprehensive business plan to the scoring criteria for licenses, and directing 7% of marijuana tax revenue to a Justice Reinvestment Fund. The fund would be focused on criminal justice reform and services for economically disadvantaged persons in areas disproportionately affected by enforcement of drug laws.

The revised legislation also eliminated a proposed Social Equity Loan fund to provide grants and low-interest loans to “social equity” license applicants. That provision meant the previous bill needed a three-fourths supermajority votes in the House and Senate, making passage extremely unlikely. The current version still provides special considerations, including reduced fees, for social equity and “microbusiness” applicants. The social equity applicant pool would be limited to those who live in disproportionately affected areas, have been convicted of a marijuana-related offense, or are the child of a person convicted of a marijuana-related offense.