The Delaware Senate gave final approval Tuesday to bills legalizing recreational marijuana use by adults in the state and authorizing the establishment of a state-licensed and regulated cannabis industry, setting up a potential battle with Democratic Gov. John Carney.
The Democrat-controlled chamber voted 16-4 for a bill allowing personal possession by those 21 and older of up to one ounce of leaf marijuana or equivalent amounts in other forms. Sen. Eric Buckson of Dover was the lone Republican to vote for the bill.
Buckson, however, led the opposition to the industry-creation bill that calls for state officials to issue up to 30 initial retail marijuana licenses, 30 manufacturing licenses, 60 cultivation licenses and five testing licenses. The bill includes special license pools for "social equity" and "microbusiness" applicants. Residents would be prohibited, however, from growing their own plants for personal consumption.
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The industry bill required a three-fifths supermajority because it creates a new tax, in the form of a 15% levy on retail sales. It cleared the Senate on a 15-5 party-line vote.
Carney, who vetoed a legalization bill last year, declined to comment as he left his Legislative Hall office following the vote.
"The governor continues to have strong concerns about the unintended consequences of legalizing marijuana for recreational use in our state, especially about the impacts on our young people and highway safety," his office said in a prepared statement. "He knows others have honest disagreements on this issue."
GOP lawmakers have been mostly united in opposition to legalization, although three Republican House members voted for the legalization bill earlier this month, and two voted for the industry bill.
Democrats rejected two amendments from Buckson on Tuesday.
Opponents have argued legalization and creation of a state marijuana industry would lead to increased marijuana use among teens and young adults that could affect their cognitive development, expose business owners to liability and result in more traffic deaths and injuries. They also say it would do little to eliminate illegal sales.
Supporters say neither bill would change laws regarding driving under the influence and that public consumption of marijuana would be prohibited. They also say employers will be able to test workers for marijuana and discipline employees for being under the influence at work. Supporters also argue that a state-regulated industry would reduce illegal black-market sales, create jobs and generate more tax revenue.
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"It is nearly impossible to quantify just how much revenue our state has missed out on by failing to create this legal market," chief Senate sponsor Trey Paradee, a Dover Democrat, said in a statement issued after the vote. He called Denver an "island of prohibition," surrounded by states legalizing and regulating marijuana.
Republicans, meanwhile, contend a state cannabis industry is contrary to federal law and will open the door to organized drug dealers. Buckson argued Tuesday that a recreational marijuana industry also will negatively affect Delaware’s medical marijuana industry and will lead more people who have never used marijuana to try it.
"You will grow the problem," he warned, adding that a state-licensed industry will incentivize the black market, not help eliminate it. People who have already been using marijuana will continue buying from their suppliers, rather than paying double to buy from a state-licensed facility, he said.
But Paradee said people will, indeed, be willing to pay a premium for weed they know has been grown under careful supervision without harmful chemical additives. They also will pay more for the broader selection of potency and flavors that a state-licensed shop will offer, he said.
There's no assurance, however, that a state cannabis industry will cut into the black market for marijuana.
In California, where marijuana was legalized in 2016, the illegal marketplace continues to dwarf the legal one. The California Department of Cannabis Control announced earlier this month that more than 144,254 pounds of illegal cannabis was seized in agency-led operations last year, a 246% increase from the prior year.
To date, 21 other states have passed laws legalizing recreational use of marijuana by adults.