Early last year, Delaware Governor Jack Markell signed into law House Bill 34. The new law decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cannabis (less than an ounce) for personal use, making it a civil infraction with a $100 fine. While it’s a big win for cannabis advocates, the bill itself is fairly limited in scope, and the Delaware Justice Department is still clarifying just how they plan to enforce it.
"There will be some confusion because people may think marijuana is legal now, and that is not the case," said New Castle County Police chief Elmer Setting. "Hopefully, they read and understand the law."
For example, police could still arrest you for smoking on the front stoop of your apartment building (or anywhere considered open to the public), and they can still use the smell of cannabis as probable cause to search you, your car or your residence. The law also imposes harsh penalties for minors, who, if caught in possession of cannabis, face an unclassified misdemeanor with a fine and possible jail time.
"We have some serious concerns with that, especially with city dwellings and low income residences," said Zoe Patchell, an anti-prohibition lobbyist. "I definitely think people are confused as to what exactly is decriminalized. We've had a ton of questions about what people can and can't do, what they can and can't possess, what they will be arrested for. It's hard to give them those answers."
Though the bill has its flaws, most cannabis advocates are pleased with the direction Delaware is taking.
“Delaware’s marijuana policy is about to become a lot more reasonable,” said Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Most people agree adults should not face jail time or the life-altering consequences of a criminal record just for possessing a substance that is safer than alcohol. Taxpayers certainly don’t want to foot the bill for it, and fortunately they will not have to any longer.”
In 2011, Delaware passed a medical marijuana (MMJ) bill allowing patients to register with the state health agency to obtain an MMJ card, but it took four years for the first “Compassion Center” (the name MMJ dispensaries must lawfully use in Delaware) to open. The bill allows there to be only one compassion center per county, and for many, the state’s only center is too far out of reach.
DelawareOnline reports that there are more than 600 cardholders, who have been granted access to the program for debilitating pain, nausea, cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV, hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer's disease with a physician's referral. Recently, another law passed that allowed minors access to certain non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) oils that have been shown to be effective in the treatment of some forms of seizures and other debilitating conditions.
While it’s been a slow start for the First State’s MMJ program, the passage of a decriminalization bill and the exit of Gov. Markell (who said publicly he would not sign legalization legislation), the next few years could see a lot of progress toward the end of prohibition.
"Our governor has gone on the record to say he wouldn't legalize marijuana on his watch," said Cynthia Ferguson, executive director of Delaware NORML. "But he is done in 2016. It will be a good year to have conversations so we can start out 2017 with strong legalization legislation."
Until then, Delaware lawmakers are playing it safe with the “wait and see” attitude as states that have legalized recreational use of cannabis like Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. continue to rake in millions in tax dollars.
Photo credit: Unslash.