A bill to legalize marijuana in Delaware cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday, with the House Revenue and Finance Committee voting after a two-hour hearing to release the measure for consideration by the full House.
It's being touted as a revenue-generating measure, calling for a government-run industry that would create jobs while padding state coffers with licensing fees and taxes. State government would collect a 15 percent tax on sales of marijuana products, as well as licensing fees for cultivation, manufacturing, sales and testing facilities.
"Marijuana is here. The question is 'Are we going to regulate it?'" said bill cosponsor and committee member Rep. Paul Baumbach, a Newark Democrat.
Prohibition of marijuana, as with alcohol, has been "a dismal failure," Baumbach added.
Olivia Naugle, legislative coordinator with the Marijuana Policy Project, said legalization would free up law enforcement to focus on serious crimes and would help promote public health and safety.
As a revenue-generating proposal, the bill does not allow Delawareans to grow their own marijuana for their personal use, a problem for some legalization advocates.
"It's been eight years since we passed medical cannabis, and there's still no home grow," said Dover vape shop owner Sam Chick, adding that the bill as currently written would allow only a small number of privileged corporations to profit from legal weed.
"This is corporate cannabis control. Small businesses and farmers will not be allowed to have an opportunity to participate," Chick added. "So you can work for the man, but you can't be the man."
Gov. John Carney remains wary of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, but Attorney General Kathy Jennings supports the idea.
Jennings has previously said her office would not prosecute people for possessing less than 6 ounces (170 grams) of marijuana. She also is one of 33 attorneys general who have urged Congress to approve a proposal aimed at opening the doors of the U.S. banking system to the legal marijuana industry.
Meanwhile, opponents of the measure include Delaware State Police, the Medical Society of Delaware and state and local chambers of commerce.
"Public health should be our number-one concern here, not commercializing a drug for state tax dollars," said Mark Thompson, executive director of the medical society. "It is unconscionable to put money over medical well being of our citizens."
Under the bill, Delaware's marijuana industry would be overseen by a state oversight committee and a Delaware marijuana commissioner, who would have the authority to adopt regulations and would submit an annual report to the governor and General Assembly.
Adults over age 21 could buy and possess up to 1 ounce (28.4 grams) of marijuana, no more than 5 grams of which could be in a concentrated form such as that used in edibles and vape liquids.
The legislation calls for initial authorization of 50 indoor and outdoor cultivation facilities of various sizes, 10 product manufacturing facilities, 15 retail stores and five testing facilities.
The state would begin issuing retail store permits 11 months after the law is enacted. However, existing medical marijuana dispensaries – like the one that recently opened on Ogletown Road in Newark – could begin selling recreational pot just 30 days after the law goes into effect.
Licensing fees for stores, manufacturing facilities and testing facilities would be $10,000 every two years. Cultivation facilities would pay two-year licensing fees starting at $2,500 and increasing in $2,500 increments up to $10,000, depending on their size.
Retail sale hours would be similar to those allowed for alcohol sales. The bill prohibits the use of marijuana in public and by drivers and passengers in vehicles. It also prohibits smoking pot anywhere that smoking tobacco or e-cigarettes is not permitted.
A similar bill failed to clear the House by four votes last year, with the chief sponsor blaming opposition from the law enforcement community. Five lawmakers, all members of the Democratic majority, declined to vote on the measure, ensuring its failure.