House bill decriminalizes marijuana

Pot remains illegal, but one ounce would draw ticket
June 13, 2014

A bill that would decriminalize marijuana use in Delaware will be fine tuned by its sponsor, who says it would not legalize the drug.

Rep. Helen Keeley, D-Wilmington south, is working out final details of House Bill 371, which classifies possession of less than an ounce from a crime to a civil offense.

“It's not my intention to legalize marijuana. The only intention I have is to decriminalize that small amount,” Keeley said.

Keeley introduced a bill in May but faced criticism because of ambiguities. The final bill focuses on decriminalizing marijuana, she said. She originally proposed violators could face $100 fine, but that could change, she said.

Speaker of the House Pete Schwartkopf, R-Rehoboth Beach, said decriminalizing marijuana is fine, but it is not legal and he would like higher fines.

He said he supports the idea of decriminalizing marijuana largely because of the effects a drug possession charge can have on young people.

“They always make mistakes. It's hard to think it's a good thing to give them a criminal record for a very small amount of marijuana,” he said.

With the June 30 end of session looming, Schwartkopf said he doubts the bill will go far. If it is voted out of committee, however, he said he would not block it from reaching the House floor.

Keeley said she continues to generate support for the bill.

“I'm trying to sit down with those who have some concerns and also sit down with the folks who are advocates and work out the language so we can move forward when the bill is heard in committee,” she said.

So far, only Democrats have signed on to Keeley's bill, but she said she is talking to legislators on both sides of the aisle.

“I will continue to have the conversation,” she said.

She asks constituents to contact their legislators about their views on the bill.

Even if the bill dies at the end of this session, Keeley said she intends to introduce a similar bill next session.

At least she has started the ball rolling, she said.

Rep. Stephen Smyk, R-Milton, said the penalties in place for first-time marijuana possession are mild. Possession charges are often the result of a plea agreement from more serious crimes, he said.

“It's extremely rare to use the maximum sentence of 30 days for mere possession of marijuana, and that would only result from a prosecutor dedicated to ensuring the removal of a dangerous person from our communities,” Smyk said.

He said the bill would encourage marijuana use, resulting in more driving under the influence incidents.

“Ultimately, I think this legislation has the potential to send us down a slippery slope toward full legalization of marijuana in Delaware,” he said. “From what I have heard from the majority of my constituents, that is not a path they want our state to be on.”

Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, also said Keeley's bill is not something he would support, but he does appreciate Keeley's work to start a conversation.

For now, that is fine with Keeley.

“The intent is to get it out there and start the discussion,” she said.

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