Cannabis legalization backers question ‘suspicious’ amendments before bill fell short in house vote

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Legislative Hall in Dover.
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Supporters of legalized marijuana are frustrated over the legislative wrangling that led to the measure falling short of gaining passage from the Delaware House.

The measure fell just shy of the three-fifths required for passage by a 23-14 margin with four not voting. Members from both sides of the aisle abstained from the vote. The three-fifths vote is required on legislation that raises revenues.

Lobbyists have been busy in Legislative Hall. They range from opponents of legalization to some medical marijuana operators who do not want to see small businesses and those with nonviolent marijuana offenses gain recreational marijuana licenses.

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“Most of the conflict surrounding this legislation involves the complex language related to the cannabis industry. That’s what is holding up the critical justice issues like stopping thousands of cannabis arrests,” said Zoë Patchell executive director of DE CAN, a coalition of supporters of the bill. “We think the process should be focused more on ending prohibition enforcement, rather than fighting over who gets the quickest profit.”

“First and foremost, this has to be about ending the current cannabis offenses and all the collateral consequences associated with this failed policy,” said Laura Sharer, executive director of Delaware NORML.

According to backers of the bill, signs pointed to the passage of the bill since leadership rarely schedules bills that have no chance of passage.

Instead, a caucus was held and when returning to the session, a series of late amendments were offered before the bill was brought to a vote.

Just before voting started, Representative Jeff Spiegelman (R), Camden, publicly declared that he had a conflict of interest. After some recent legal advice Spiegelman said he would have to recuse himself from voting on the amendments and HB305, without making any other details public.

“It was a potential conflict in my professional life,” Spiegelman wrote in an Email message. Spiegelman, whose biography lists his occupation as commercial real estate, did not elaborate.

Representative Mike Smith, R-Newark, then called for a vote on the amendments that were all defeated.

Margins got even closer when two Democrats Rep. Bolden and Rep. Bush – abstained from the vote as well.

“This was a comprehensive bill with such high stakes. We’ve had overwhelming public support and there’s even been a simple majority vote in the House, twice,” said Patchell, “HB305 was defeated after suspicious amendments were introduced that would restrict eligibility for entry into this lucrative industry.”

A release claimed Spiegelman had actually authored most of the poisonous amendments to the bill three weeks prior. Long-time advocates involved in the process said the amendments sought to limit competition and reduce eligibility for participation in the legal cannabis industry.

According to backers of the bill, those who wanted to get a cannabis permit would have to show a nearly perfect tax record. They also sought an extra level of scrutiny for residents with past cannabis offenses who would be seeking a permit, regardless of how long ago those offenses occurred or how minimal.

Rep. Spiegelman’s recusal was especially troubling. He was the only House Republican who voted yes for legalization in 2018, a release from DE CAN stated.

In the last four versions of the legalization bill since 2017 Spiegelman had introduced a series of similar amendments aimed at limiting the people eligible to operate cannabis permits. Those included trying to double application fees, requiring officially approved business plans, and increased searches of criminal cannabis records.

Patchell noted that Delaware’s cannabis consumers will likely drive across the bridge to New Jersey to legally purchase when the Garden State’s regulated sales begin this year.

“Our groups have been working on regulating marijuana for nearly a decade, and there’s been a majority of public support for legalization the entire time,” said DE NORML’s Laura Sharer.

“The public deserves answers, consumers who are being targeted by current enforcement efforts deserve answers, and the taxpayers footing the bill of this failed policy year after year, all deserve to know what happened,” said Patchell.

Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network (DCAN) is a grassroots advocacy group.

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