Could Delaware Be First to Legalize Marijuana in 2017?

Delaware was the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Could it also be the first state to legalize marijuana by an act of the legislature?

So far, every state to end cannabis prohibition has done so through the will of voters at the ballot box, but marijuana policy analysts believe that 2017 could see one or more states enacting legalization through bills passed by lawmakers.

If several recent developments are any indication, Delaware could be one of those states.

State Senate Majority Leader Margaret Rose Henry (D) announced this month that she intends to introduce a legalization bill when the legislature reconvenes in January.

And Colin Bonini, the Republican nominee for governor, has endorsed ending prohibition.

“I actually favor legalization,” he said in a debate last week. “We have decriminalized marijuana possession in Delaware to the point where it is de facto legal. My point is if we’re going to do it, let’s do it all the way. Let’s regulate it. Let’s try to keep it out of the hands of kids… Let’s enforce it so that we can knock drug dealers out of business.”

Bonini, currently a state senator, voted against decriminalization when it was before the Senate last year but he believes that if possession is not criminalized, users should be able to get marijuana though a regulated system. “I didn’t agree with that policy, but that’s the policy we have and we need to be adults about it,” he said.

His Democratic opponent, Congressman John Carney, is opposed to legalization. While saying that he supports the state’s current decriminalization and medical cannabis policies, he raised concerns in the debate that marijuana might be a gateway to other “party drugs.”

While Carney is favored to win the gubernatorial race over Bonini in the heavily Democratic state, advocates still believe that the legalization legislation stands a good chance and could be enacted in the next two to three years, if not in 2017.

Sen. Henry, the majority leader, was the lead sponsor of the state’s medical marijuana legislation and helped lead the successful fight for decriminalization as well, so she has a track record of championing cannabis legislation to passage.

And in Congress, Carney has voted in favor of amendments to respect state medical marijuana and full legalization laws, so he may be open to supporting ending prohibition in Delaware if laws in other states continue to get good results.

“Delaware is well positioned to become one of the first states to end marijuana prohibition legislatively,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told in an email.

She pointed to polling released this month showing that 61 percent of the state’s registered voters support legalization.

Other states that reformers believe are likely to be among the first to end marijuana prohibition through legislators’ actions are Rhode Island and Vermont, where legalization bills have garnered impressive cosponsor lists in recent sessions. If nearby Massachusetts and Maine voters enact legalization at the ballot box next month, those legislative efforts could get a serious boost.

Advocates are also looking to lawmakers in Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey to take up and possibly pass legalization bills in the coming years.

Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.

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