Delaware joined the ranks of states working to reform criminal marijuana laws this week, as Governor Jack Markell signed into law a bill that will decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of cannabis. The move is an encouraging step toward reducing the racially-skewed rate of incarceration for nonviolent marijuana offenses.
Sponsored by Rep. Helene Keeley (D.-Wilmington), the bill passed the Senate on Thursday and the House earlier this month, with lawmakers voting along party lines. No Republican voted in favor of the legislation in either chamber. Police groups also opposed the measure, claiming that it would limit their ability to initiate searches useful in bringing charges against dealers and traffickers.
The legislation, which won’t go into effect until six months from now, makes possession of up to an ounce of marijuana punishable by a $100 civil fine and possible confiscation of the drug. Neither possession nor private use will be punishable by criminal penalties, though it remains strictly illegal to sell or consume in a public space.
Evidence that the enforcement of drug possession laws disproportionately affects people of color helped garner support for the bill. According to a 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, the number of marijuana-related arrests increased by 102% between 2001 and 2010, the second-highest increase in the country. Nearly 80% of these arrests were for marijuana possession only. Blacks made up 47% of those arrested, although just 22% of the population is black.
Between police, corrections facilities, and judicial and legal fees, marijuana enforcement costs Delaware $13,324,181 each year.
Photo Credit: Marc Fuyà
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