Marijuana legalization bill still in the works

Sponsor expects to have revised legislation ready by January
August 26, 2021

This year’s attempt to legalize marijuana may have stalled, but the bill’s sponsor says he is working on a substitute bill for next session.

“I hope we can get ours up and running before the federal government takes action,” said Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark, prime sponsor of Delaware’s marijuana legalization bill. 

House Bill 150 moved through two House committees and was ready for action on the House floor when it was pulled. At issue was a social equity fund that would allow minority business owners to receive grants or loans to operate in areas that have been adversely affected by the illegal drug market. Although the bill didn’t specifically include a funding mechanism, Osienski said, he filed an amendment that some legislators saw as weakening that aspect, ultimately dooming the bill.

“It made some feel that we were gutting something that wasn’t actually in the bill,” he said. “There wasn’t enough time for me to have the conversation with everybody to explain the amendment was not affecting the original intent of the bill.”

House Bill 150 marks the second attempt to pass a Marijuana Control Act. In 2018, the act was defeated on the House floor. Delaware decriminalized marijuana in 2015, reducing penalties from criminal charges to civil citations for lower amounts of the drug.

Osienski said a group is now working on a revision with new language to clarify that a commission will work to establish a social equity fund for applicants or minority business owners. The new bill will have no funding mechanism, allowing for a three-fifths majority needed for passage – 25 votes – a number Osienski said he believes the bill will receive.

“Those are the things that we have to work out now so we’re ready come January to have a substitute bill,” he said.

Scaling back the bill is not an option, he said. Simply decriminalizing marijuana use so that all civil and criminal offenses are removed does not address the illegal market, Osienski said.

“We could take that baby step,” he said. “But you still have an illegal market that provides it. [Decriminalization only] expands the illegal market that will continue to grow.”

Osienski said his main goal is to eliminate the illegal market, and the violence and crime associated with it. He likens the end of marijuana prohibition to the transition from alcohol prohibition to profitable, legitimate businesses. The shift from buying the product on the street to over the counter may take some time, he said, but he’s convinced it will happen.

“Can you still get illegally made alcohol – moonshine? Yeah, you still can, but the majority of Americans will walk into a liquor store. Eventually, that will happen with marijuana,” he said.

The second goal of the bill is to create new businesses and jobs, he said. The bill has provisions to benefit in-state, small businesses, not out-of-state corporations.

Osienski said a 15 percent tax rate does not overtax small businesses, and a two-year, $10,000 license for some business operations is competitive and not overregulation  – a reality that has kept store prices inflated in legal states, and has allowed an active, affordable black market to thrive. 

“We wanted to make sure we had a tax rate that is competitive with the illegal market,” he said, adding as competition grows, he believes prices will come down.

He said the Delaware bill was crafted in order to avoid overregulation and other pitfalls, such as those encountered by California and Colorado, and other states that legalized marijuana early on.

Ultimately, he said, passing a bill before the federal government ends marijuana prohibition is essential. With an established legalized marijuana market, Osienski said, Delaware would be poised for success when interstate commerce of marijuana opens up. 

“I hope to get this done before Washington takes steps, because this will give Delaware businesses a head start before the federal government changes its regulations,” he said. “States that didn’t take this action will be slow starting out, whereas states that have will have a head start and be able to sell their product across state borders.”

Osienski said he hopes to have a substitute bill for HB 150 worked out over the next few months so it is ready for passage come January.

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