Will Delaware be the next state to decriminalize marijuana? Legislation will be introduced and debated—once again—in January.
Since 1973, 19 states have done it, from as far north as Alaska, west to Oregon, and south to Mississippi.
A little closer to home, New York and the District of Columbia have done it.
This month, neighboring areas like Philadelphia and Maryland are doing it.
Across the country, states and municipalities are decriminalizing marijuana—minimizing the penalties for possession, removing criminal charges and prison sentences. Instead, those caught with small amounts of pot are given citations for fines, much like a parking or speeding ticket.
Will Delaware be the next state to decriminalize marijuana?
Two years ago, the state legalized medicinal marijuana, and the first of three medical marijuana dispensaries is set to open in 2015. In May of this year, Representative Helene M. Keeley (D-Wilmington), along with 14 other legislators, submitted a bill to lessen the penalties under Title 16 of the Delaware Code. (Title 16 views possession of any amount of marijuana as a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by incarceration of up to six months and a maximum fine of $1,150.) Though the legislation never came up for a vote, Keeley and her group plan to submit a similar proposal in January at the 148th General Assembly in Dover.
Keeley’s proposal calls for a $250 civil penalty for anyone found in possession of one ounce or less of marijuana in public. Offenders under the age of 21 will also be fined $250 and charged with an unclassified misdemeanor, but it will not be recorded in any criminal history database.
“For me, it comes down to the barriers set in place when someone is caught with a small amount of marijuana,” Keeley said. “On a job application, for instance, you are asked if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime or drug offense, many times without the opportunity to explain what the circumstances were.”
“Additionally, when you really start to think about people at the high school or college age experimenting with drugs and alcohol, their futures can really be put into jeopardy with a criminal record,” Keeley said. “I’m not saying that [experimentation] is right, but it happens at that age. Do we really want to kick those kids out of college or take away their scholarships? That would only change lives for the worse.”
Senator Bryan Townsend (D-Newark), who supported Keeley’s legislation in May and will do so again in January, says he has spoken with constituents of all ages who have been arrested for minimal quantities of marijuana.
“I’ve met people who have been arrested and detained for a joint found in their car during a routine traffic stop,” Townsend says. “The next day they miss work due to being detained, then they’re suddenly out of a job, and so begins a cycle where it’s very difficult to keep momentum going to put them in a good place with work and their own livelihood.”
Not everyone, of course, is for decriminalization. Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson (R-Milford) is one of the more vocal opponents. In The News Journal of May 30, Simpson said, “I don’t believe we need to legalize marijuana,” and referred to it as a “pathway to greater drug use.”
…as far as recreational marijuana, I just don’t think we need to go down that path right now.
—Senator Gary Simpson
“There was some merit, I thought, to marijuana for medical use for people that are sick,” Simpson went on. “But as far as recreational marijuana, I just don’t think we need to go down that path right now. I think my caucus members would feel the same way.”
Despite Simpson’s views, fellow Republican Michael Ramone (R-Middle Run Valley) sees the laws relating to the use and possession of a limited amount of marijuana as “overzealous.”
“I do support decriminalization if it is done the right way,” Ramone says. “Three major issues that need to be identified are the cost of processing offenders versus ticketing them, policing marijuana charges versus true addiction issues, and overcrowding of our prisons with violators awaiting trials.”
“Marijuana laws as they are currently written… create more issues than we are solving,” Ramone says. “When that happens, my duty is to try and fix it.”
I feel pretty confident that more and more people want to see something done on this issue.
—Representative Helene M. Keeley
Keeley is hopeful she can get the decriminalization bill passed by June. With nearly six months between her official submission in January and the General Assembly’s recess in June, legislators will have plenty of time to debate the issue and see the merits of her plan.
“I feel pretty confident that more and more people want to see something done on this issue,” Keeley says. “Some of my fellow legislators probably didn’t want to vote on such a big issue in an election year, and progressive ideas like this take time.”
Jonathan Dworkin, spokesperson for Gov. Markell, had this to say about decriminalization: “The Governor has expressed interest in ongoing dialogue regarding changing the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. He looks forward to conversations with members of the General Assembly about opportunities to do so.”
Delaware’s Neighbors Decriminalize
When Keeley’s proposal reaches the General Assembly in January, legislators and their constituents can look to nearby states for examples of how decriminalization may or may not be working.
On Oct. 1, Maryland joined the 19 other states in decriminalizing marijuana, lowering the current penalty for possession of less than 10 grams from a fine of up to $500, up to 90 days in jail, or both, to a civil crime of up to $100 for a first offense, with no jail time. Maryland thus joined neighboring Washington, D.C. in the decriminalization movement.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed similar legislation in September, after members of City Council approved a decriminalization bill in May. Councilman Jim Kenney (D-Philadelphia) championed the legislation, which calls for a $25 fine for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, and a $100 fine for public consumption.
“This is a huge deal for the city,” Kenney told Out & About soon after Nutter signed the legislation. “Everything should be in effect by Oct. 20, and it’s going to save the city a lot of money. We have so many people locked up. If we were to put that money into education and treatment, we’d be a lot better off.”
Kenney’s staff estimated that 17,000 police hours were spent on more than 4,200 arrests for marijuana possession in 2013. Coupled with court and prison costs, marijuana arrests cost Philadelphia close to $4 million, according to calculations by Kenney’s staff and the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Of the 23,000 records of those currently incarcerated in Delaware prisons, only 140 are for drug possession under the parameters of Title 16, according to Deputy Bureau Chief Christopher Klein, of the Delaware Department of Corrections. Klein also says that because Philadelphia has city jails to maintain, the cost to arrest and incarcerate an offender costs much more than it does in Wilmington or Newark.
“In Delaware, we do not have county lock-up or city jails,” Klein says “so the financial burden of incarceration within the DOC falls on the state, rather than, say, the city of Wilmington or Newark.”
Wilmington Chief of Police Bobby L. Cummings and Newark Chief Paul M. Tiernan were not readily available for comment regarding the number of marijuana arrests and subsequent expense to their respective departments.
Black and White
Statistics show that decriminalizing marijuana will have a significantly larger impact on the black community than on the white population. According to a study released in 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union, marijuana use among blacks and whites is nearly equal. In 2010, 14 percent of blacks and 12 percent of whites reported using marijuana.
However, when it comes to arrest rates for marijuana possession, according to the same study, blacks were 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested, on a national average. The largest disparity—5.19—took place in Pennsylvania, where Councilman Kenney says 83 percent of those arrested for marijuana were African American
African Americans and young people are being targeted, and that severely cuts off any avenues of advancement, be it employment, education or financial assistance.
—Councilman Jim Kenney (Philadelphia)
“The disparity in demographics is staggering, really,” Kenney said. “African Americans and young people are being targeted, and that severely cuts off any avenues of advancement, be it employment, education or financial assistance.”
A similar disparity exists in the First State, according to Rachelle Yeung, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington-based group that lobbies to change marijuana laws. She says Delaware blacks are three times as likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana as whites.
“The thing is, marijuana use, according to the study, is basically equal across all races, yet blacks are much more targeted,” Yeung said. “And a lot of times this is happening in the same areas and the same neighborhoods.”
The case of Keenan Benson, a 43-year-old African American, is fairly typical. In 1997, Benson was charged with felony possession of marijuana. Almost 17 years later, during a routine traffic stop, a police search found a “blunt roach,” or less than an inch of a marijuana joint.
“County Police stopped me because they said there were reports of a Mexican man harassing people in the area I was driving,” Benson said. “Do I look Mexican to you?” Benson asks sarcastically.
“Since the arrest, I’ve shown up in court three times, but the officer has not, so the case has been extended,” says Benson, who served in the army from 1991-94. “Each time I have to go, that’s another day I can’t make work. And when you work for a temp agency, doing construction like I do, missing a day or even a few hours means you’re not likely to get called back for work the following day.”
Benson’s arrest is part of a trend. According to a report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, cannabis arrests in the United States have more than doubled in the last two decades.
In 1991, less than 300,000 cannabis arrests were made in the United States. In 2012, the number had reached close to 750,000.
Michael Ramone thinks marijuana is a “victimless crime,” and believes the cost of making pot arrests can be put to better use.
There should be some level of consideration for people who commit crimes unto themselves as opposed to crimes against others.
—Representative Michael Ramone
“There should be some level of consideration for people who commit crimes unto themselves as opposed to crimes against others,” Ramone says. “If we’re talking about a habitual offender, I understand there needs to be consequences. But before that person gets to their second or third offense, maybe we should be using the money invested in police hours and court costs and put it back into rehabilitation and abuse [prevention] programs.”
Medical Marijuana Awaits Its Dispensary
Even as the debate over decriminalization goes on, one form of possession is technically legal in Delaware: medical marijuana. Since the Medical Marijuana Act of 2012, those suffering from severe and chronic illnesses have had the opportunity to apply for a card that allows them to possess 6 ounces or less of marijuana.
But delays due to changes in policy have pushed the opening of a dispensary for medical marijuana in Delaware back to February of next year at the earliest. Paul Hyland, program administrator for Health Systems Protection in the Division of Public Health, calls early 2015 “realistic.”
The First State Compassion Center is set to open no later than April, Hyland says. Located at the Germay Industrial Park just off Route 4/Maryland Avenue in Wilmington, the 45,000-square-foot facility will include separate grow rooms, an area for processing, and retail space for points of sale.
“The permit to grow has not yet been issued, as security, surveillance and public safety need to be taken into account,” Hyland says. “Once that phase has concluded, it takes 107 days or so to grow, harvest, cure and display the product. Once the dispensary is open, marijuana will be available for sale.”
Medical marijuana card carriers like Buddy La Follette couldn’t be happier. The 51-year-old retired flight attendant has purchased and renewed his card for $125 annually for three years, waiting for the time when he could purchase pot legally.
While he waits for the dispensary to open, La Follette buys marijuana through friends, rather than off the street. He tends to use a vaporizer to “go easy on the lungs,” and also uses the oils from cannabis in butter and cooking, to enhance the benefits.
“I hurt my back at work for U.S. Airways, was put on disability, and later was diagnosed with skin cancer,” the Wilmington resident says. “I’m fortunate to have been awarded a $300,000 settlement from my employer, but purchasing has still been risky for me ever since I got sick.”
Under current law, La Follette is allowed to possess up to 6 ounces at a time in his home. However, if he were to be caught purchasing marijuana in public, he’d be arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, just like any other citizen.
Even the process involved in securing a medicinal marijuana card was arduous, La Follette says. He had to obtain a physician’s certification and wait nearly three months for a background check to go through before being approved.
“Most doctors don’t even want to touch the subject, and the state of Delaware doesn’t provide you with a list of doctors that do approve [medical marijuana],” La Follette said. “Between that and having to purchase illegally, it can be a real challenge.”
La Follette is frustrated and more than ready to be able to purchase marijuana safely, without wondering what someone on the street did to enhance the drug.
“Yeah, I’m upset. It’s been three years, and the entire time I’ve been paying my annual fee, I haven’t been getting my money’s worth,” he says. “But as soon as that store opens, I’ll be the first one in line.”
By next June, depending on the fate of Keeley’s proposal, perhaps La Follette and other Delawareans who purchase marijuana—for medicinal purposes or otherwise—will have an easier time of it.