Keeley Bill Would Reclassify Possession of Small Amounts of Marijuana

DOVER – Delaware would join a growing number of states that provide alternatives to incarceration for people possessing a small amount of marijuana under legislation introduced Thursday.

Sponsored by Rep. Helene Keeley, House Bill 371 would exempt from criminal possession people who possess an ounce or less of marijuana for personal use and consumption. A person consuming marijuana in a public place – such as a street, park, public building or business open to the public – could face a civil penalty of $100. Possessing more than an ounce of marijuana still would result in criminal prosecution.

Currently, 18 states – including Connecticut, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska and Rhode Island – have removed incarceration as a penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, according to the Marijuana Policy Project. In Delaware, possession of any amount of marijuana is punishable by up to six months in prison and a $1,150 fine.

“This is an issue that touches on a lot of different areas. Should we be spending millions of taxpayer dollars to incarcerate people for possessing an ounce of marijuana? Is it the best use of law enforcement to bust people with a small amount of marijuana in their pocket?” asked Rep. Keeley, D-Wilmington South. “Many other states have been moving in this direction for some time, and we should have that conversation. We need to evaluate whether our laws are having the desired effect and how they should evolve.”

A March poll conducted by Public Policy Polling showed that more than two-thirds of Delawareans support the change, with a majority of Democrats and Republicans, and all age groups backing the move to a civil penalty.

In 2011, Delaware passed legislation to allow people with a range of chronic and debilitating illnesses to legally use medical marijuana to treat their symptoms. That program has been delayed due to concerns of federal government enforcement but is now moving forward.

Rep. Keeley said that HB 371 is being introduced late in the session to begin a dialogue on the issue and to educate the public about the subject. While she is not is not pushing the bill forward, Rep. Keeley said public support could change that.

“I have no illusions that we are definitely going to pass this next month,” Rep. Keeley said. “But I also look at the number of co-sponsors we’ve been able to gain and the public polling data supporting bills like this, and you can see that there is a movement to make this happen.”

HB 371, which has 11 House co-sponsors and six Senate co-sponsors, has been assigned to the House Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee.