Advocates of marijuana legalization are unhappy with legislators who sat out a vote on marijuana legalization last week. There were also hints that “corporate marijuana” was a factor.
HB 305 needed to clear a legislative hurdle requiring a three–fifths supermajority, or 25 votes. The final vote last week was 23-14 with four abstentions.
“We’re outraged that Delaware is maintaining the tragic policy of cannabis prohibition,” said Delaware NORML’s Executive Director Laura Sharer, “This delay means many thousands of residents will have their lives upended by unnecessary and racially disparate cannabis enforcement. Consumers are left to bear this unjustifiable human cost of life-altering police interaction, searches, and arrests for a non-toxic plant.”
Despite the decriminalization of small amounts, marijuana possession arrests still happen every day, more than 115 every week. And registered patients can’t afford the handful of regulated medical dispensaries, according to a release from the Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network (Delaware CAN)
Zoë Patchell, executive director of Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network (Delaware CAN), said she was shocked that the issue of stopping cannabis arrests became caught up in business rules.
“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, “Now, with the clear prospect for people to cash in big on the industry, the legislation has failed to pass. The bill was defeated after suspicious amendments were introduced that would restrict eligibility for entry into this lucrative industry. Those amendments were authored by a House member who recused himself from voting over a conflict of interest.”
Patchell saw the amendments as a poison pill but was not the only factor in the vote.
“The public deserves some answers, especially consumers who are being targeted by current enforcement,” said Patchell, “Taxpayers, who will keep footing the bill for the enforcement of this failed policy, also deserve answers. We have to ask the question, how can we begin to deliver justice?”
Going into the session it seemed that the bill’s passage was aligned. Delaware’s Senate and House leadership rarely bring bills that don’t pass. But, the filibuster-level threshold proved difficult.
The margins became even thinner when two Democrats – Rep. Stephanie Bolden and Rep. Bill Bush – abstained from voting on HB305. Rep. Jeff Spiegelman, a Republican, also recused himself because of a conflict of interest. Spiegelman was the only Republican who voted in favor of another near-miss legalization bill in 2018.
Cynthia Ferguson, Delaware NORML’s founder, is Rep. Bolden’s constituent. She can’t imagine why her Representative abstained from voting.
“If you want to see a neighborhood that has suffered under prohibition, just visit mine, right here in Wilmington. The residents of Browntown should not be treated like criminals for merely choosing a substance that is safer alcohol,” said Ferguson.
“More than eighteen percent of Delawareans consume cannabis,” noted Ferguson, “These are the friends and neighbors of our House members. We are doing something that’s completely legal in New Jersey and New York. I find it unconscionable that just a few votes will keep people in prison for a plant.”
Ferguson was among more than a dozen local advocates who had traveled to Dover after House members on both sides of the aisle had indicated that HB305 was going to be approved.
Instead of the quick passage expected, the House met for more than two hours in a private caucus over the cannabis bill. It was an ominous sign. They emerged with seven amendments; some were labeled “unfriendly” by the sponsor Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Brookside, the long-time sponsor of the bill.
During the voting Rep. Mike Smith, R-Pike Creek, said he’d indicated to his peers and advocates that he would vote yes, but because of what he called a lack of “bipartisanship” on the last-minute amendments, he decided to vote another way.
The final result won a majority but was two votes shy of the required margin. The abstentions and the recusal were key. All of the other Republicans voted against the bill.
Ironically, much of America’s cannabis industry calls Delaware their corporate home. The largest of the multi-state operators, like CuraLeaf and Columbia Care, already enjoy the First State’s friendly business laws and protections afforded by the Chancery Court. And while billions in regulated cannabis profits from other states finds shelter in Delaware, locals are still living with prohibition.
DE NORML’s Laura Sharer noted that four of DE’s medical cannabis permit holders opposed the bill. “It’s disingenuous that some lawmakers seem to be favoring corporate interests over their constituents,” said Sharer.
Delaware CAN’s Patchell noted that cannabis consumers will likely drive across the bridge to New Jersey to legally purchase when the Garden State begins regulated sales later this year.
“Our group has 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 March 10th vote halted any further action on this version of HB305 this year. Rep. Osienski is vowing to keep up the fight and is likely to introduce a new cannabis bill this session.
“We are deeply grateful for the hard work and continued support from HB305’s sponsor Rep. Ed Osienski,” said Sharer, “We also extend our thanks to the DE House Representatives who had the courage to support cannabis reform: Baumbach, Bentz, Bennett, Carson, Chukwuocha, Cooke, Dorsey Walker, Freel, Griffith, Heffernan, K. Johnson, Kowalko, Lambert, Longhurst, Lynn, Matthews, Minor-Brown, Mitchell, S. Moore, Morrison, Townsend, K. Williams, and Wilson-Anton.”