Voting along party lines, Senate lawmakers gave final legislative approval on Thursday to a measure that decriminalizes the possession and private use of up to an ounce of marijuana, and Gov. Jack Markell signed the legislation into law almost immediately.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, allows Delawareans to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and use the drug privately without facing criminal sanctions, although police can confiscate the drugs.
Criminal penalties for simple possession will be replaced with a $100 civil fine. The law takes effect six months after Markell’s signature.
An amendment discussed in committee on Wednesday, to reduce the amount of marijuana in the legislation to a half ounce, did not make it to the floor for debate. The decriminalization measure, which cleared the House earlier this month, passed despite significant opposition from police groups and Republicans.
Selling marijuana remains criminal under the law. No Republican voted in favor of the legislation in either the House or the Senate.
After the signing, Markell’s spokeswoman Kelly Bachman said in a statement: “The governor remains committed to reducing the number of people entering the criminal justice system and refocusing resources where they are needed most and House Bill 39 supports these efforts.”
Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican said, “This is a vote we’re going to really, really regret. Would you want your kid smoking weed? I think the answer is overwhelmingly no.”
Robert Capecchi, a lobbyist with the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, said in a statement after Thursday’s vote, “Marijuana is an objectively less harmful substance than alcohol, and most Americans now agree it should be treated that way. Delaware has taken an important step toward adopting a more sensible marijuana policy.”
Nineteen other states and the District of Columbia have stopped charging citizens criminally for possessing small amounts of marijuana. In Delaware, like in other states, there is evidence that the law is disproportionately enforced along racial lines, which was a driving force behind this bill’s passage.
Black people in Delaware were three times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2010, despite accounting for a much smaller portion of the population, according to a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Marijuana arrests previously threatened to saddle Delawareans with a criminal record, something the legislation’s supporters believed was unnecessary for a drug that they say poses few risks.
“It’s safer for me to choose cannabis over alcohol,” Zoe Patchell, a Delaware marijuana activist with Cannabis Bureau of Delaware, said during committee testimony on Wednesday.
The bill’s supporters did give some ground to opponents, especially those in the law enforcement community. Language added by amendments strictly define a public place where it will remain criminal to consume marijuana. Public places include any outdoor space within 10 feet of any window or sidewalk.
Delawareans under 21 also still face criminal penalties if caught with marijuana under an amendment added in the House. And it will remain criminal to consume marijuana in a moving vehicle under the current legislation.
Police groups remained concerned throughout legislative debate that decriminalizing marijuana possession could limit their ability to initiate searches that could lead to even more substantial charges for drug dealers and traffickers.