Delaware House Approves Decriminalization Bill

On June 2, 2015, the Delaware House of Representatives voted to approve HB 39, a bill aimed at decriminalizing marijuana possession in the state. With a margin of 24-14, the vote was divided along party lines with no Republicans voting in favor of the bill.

Under HB 39, adults aged 21 years or older would receive a $100 fine for simple marijuana possession. For those caught smoking marijuana in a public place, the fine would be a $200 fine and up to five days in jail, although none of it would appear on said offender’s criminal record.

Debate on the bill lasted approximately 90 minutes and during that time opponents raised questions about the unintended consequences of passing marijuana decriminalization. Republican Rep. Ruth Briggs King told her colleagues in the House that she thinks passing the bill would send the wrong kind of message to children and young adults.

“You’re providing them with the notion that it’s okay,” Briggs King stated during the debate. “This product is unregulated, this product has no regulations to the trade, and it leaves, in my opinion, the public and the user at risk.”

In an attempt to gain support of those that might share Briggs King’s concern, a compromise was made and an amendment was added to the bill that would keep the criminal penalties in place for juveniles caught with marijuana. Those aged between 18 and 21 would receive a fine for their first offense and charged with a misdemeanor for their second.

Like all good compromises, no one was completely happy with it. Both supporters and opponents questioned why juveniles should be treated differently than adults on this issue. During her testimony on the House floor, Lisa Minutola, chief of legal services for the Delaware Public Defender’s office, provided the most lucid and succinct argument against the amendment.

“I do have concerns that what we are doing is taking our most vulnerable population … and treating them the most harshly,” Minutola said. Indeed, it does seem unjust to punish juveniles more severely for marijuana possession, especially when those in that age group are likely to be more susceptible to suffering consequences from criminal penalties.

Regardless, the amendment remained in the bill and now both are headed to the Senate for consideration. The Delaware Senate has 21 members; 12 Democrats and nine Republicans. If the vote goes along party lines like it did in the House, then HB 39 should have no trouble passing, although expectations should remain tempered.

The Pennsylvania Senate effortlessly passed medical marijuana, only to have it held up by one state Representative. Even if the Delaware Senate has the will to pass this bill, the opposition can still find a way to stymie the process.

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