'When?' is the question. Legislators debate potential pros and cons for legalized marijuana bill.

It's a little hazy whether Delaware will become the 12th state to legalize recreational marijuana.

HB 110, a bill to legalize recreational weed, cleared a House committee in the General Assembly in June and it’s in limbo until the legislative session resumes in 2020.

The Marijuana Control Act is sponsored by Rep. Edward Osienski (D-Newark). It proposes to regulate and tax marijuana much like alcohol.

Driving under the influence of pot would remain illegal and only those 21 or older could buy or consume up to an ounce of weed. Unlike in some states, individuals won’t be allowed to grow their own marijuana.

The bill would impose a 15% sales tax at a licensed retail shop. The Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement would be involved in the testing and oversight of the cultivation of marijuana products.

Plans to hurt black market, add jobs

Osienski is hopeful HB 110 gains traction in January, when the legislature returns to session. He said one of the major reasons he supports the bill is he wants to hurt the black market.

“We feel this 15% tax will still allow our product to be comparable to the black market prices,” Osienski explained. “People will have a decision to make: do I want to go into some back alley and buy some product that I don’t know what’s in it and if it’s safe?

“Or do I go to a compassion center or adult recreational-use facility which I know is grown here in Delaware, tested and is safe?” he said.

He champions HB 110 for the new jobs it’d create. There are now four medical marijuana dispensaries (called compassion centers) and three growers in the state. HB 110 would add 50 cannabis farms, 30 manufacturing plants and 15 new retail stores.

Colorado, where pot is legal, has a 15% retail tax that has brought in $193 million in revenue from January to August 2019, according to Colorado.gov.

Osienski said he doesn’t know how much revenue the Marijuana Control Act would bring, because the Small Wonder is a different market than Colorado.

“This is all brand new to us,” he said. “Other states have made errors by issuing too many licenses for cultivation and too many licenses for retail. We want to kind of start off slow and see what the market will generate.”

The original version of the bill was filed in 2017, and Rep. Paul Baumbach (D-Newark) said he expected sales to generate $20 to $40 million.

The original bill, defeated in 2018, proposed a tax of $50 per ounce when the marijuana was transferred from the cultivator to the retailer. Osienski said it’s not a good idea to project the same amount of revenue with the newer version.

Pot is no gold mine

Rep. Lyndon Yearick (R-Camden/Wyoming) isn’t fond of legal recreational weed.

Considering Gov. John Carney’s proposed $4.4 billion state budget for Fiscal Year 2020, bringing in as much as $40 million wouldn’t help the state much, Yearick said.

Yearick is concerned the extra money from marijuana would come with negative consequences. There is increased potential for more people to drive under the influence and juveniles might have easier access to weed, he said.

“The issue of increased marijuana consumption, especially with young adults under the age of 25, is there are medical professionals that say your brain is not [fully] developed yet and you’re increasing your brain exposure to potential harm,” he said. “How many people used an older brother or older sister to buy them alcohol when they were 18 years old?” 

7,000 Delawareans use medical weed

Yearick, however, does support medicinal marijuana, legalized in 2011.

To receive medical cannabis, people must obtain a medical marijuana card from an authorized physician.

Among the qualifying health conditions include cancer, a terminal illness, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder, AIDS, autism with aggressive behavior and ALS.

With the card, a person can go to one of four compassion centers to receive their medicinal weed in Wilmington, Newark, Smyrna and Lewes.

Yearick said many health-care plans don’t cover medicinal marijuana, leaving many folks having to pay out of pocket.

As of May, Delaware has 7,370 cardholders. There are 3,964 in New Castle County, 2,161 in Sussex County and 1,245 in Kent County, according to Jennifer Brestel, spokeswoman for the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services.

Although medical marijuana is legal in Delaware, it’s still illegal federally. Despite this contradiction, Osienski said marijuana users are a low priority and as long as a person avoids promoting the distribution of weed over state lines, the feds aren’t going to bother them.

Moreover, the state decriminalized adult possession of up to an ounce in 2015. Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 45, which extended decriminalization to people under 21. Prior to that, juveniles could be charged with misdemeanor possession.

Legalized weed inevitable

After it’s all said and done, Yearick said he wouldn’t be surprised if marijuana becomes fully legalized here in the future. But at the moment, he’s not for it because of the risk.

“Is it probably going to happen at some point? It probably will. Some may argue that we might be losing [money] if New Jersey, Pennsylvania or Maryland [legalize] it,” he said. “In my opinion, I think the costs outweigh the benefits.”

Osienski said he understands the concern about the potential negative affect on young people’s brains, and that the drug should be kept out of the hands of juveniles.

Yet he said those points support why he strongly feels weed should get fully legalized.

“That’s more reason to go and support HB 110, because right now there’s nothing out there that is protecting a young adult or teenager from buying from the black market,” Osienski said. “I don’t think there’s a real obstacle of gaining access to a product that is not tested and it’s not known what’s in it.

“But if HB 110 is successful, by keeping a market price that would be competitive we could drive the black market out of Delaware, make it harder for those minors to access the products and make sure it’s in adult hands.”