Folks in Delaware who oppose the war on drugs received an early Christmas present from the state this past week. A measure decriminalizing marijuana possession that was first approved by the House on June 2, 2015, and later signed by Gov. Jack Markell on June 18, went into effect on Dec. 18, exactly six months after the original signing.
With this move, Delaware joins 18 other states and dozens of municipalities in an effort to downgrade the penalties that result from carrying marijuana. With four states and Washington, D.C., legalizing recreational marijuana over the past two years, it is small steps like this one in Delaware that reformers hope can pave the way for an end to prohibition within the United States at large.
The law, House Bill 39, has the intended purpose of decriminalizing possession or private use of small quantities. Whereas it was once possible to face jail time for minor possession offenses, now those who possess one ounce or less will be faced with civil penalties that will not reflect on their criminal record and they will not be subject to incarceration. The civil penalties will largely be in the form of a small fine not exceeding $100.
Despite this decriminalization effort, there are still a number of ways that police can make arrests of individuals for circumstances surrounding the drug. Lighting up in public is still illegal. Partaking outside the home can still get you a misdemeanor and less than a year of time in jail. The law does not apply to minors under the age of 18 who are still subject to the penalties that apply to juveniles, having the potential of being cleared from their records upon reaching legally-defined adulthood. Those between the ages of 18 and 21 will be given a civil penalty for their first violation, but any subsequent violations will be criminal penalties.
When the bill was originally put to vote, the decision was neatly divided along party lines; no Republicans were in favor of the bill. However, it would seem the public opinion is largely in favor of decriminalization nationwide and this trend continues to be on the rise, especially as efforts to decriminalize in a number of states are heating up.
“Delaware’s marijuana policy is about to become a lot more reasonable,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, in a statement released by the group. “Most people agree adults should not face jail time or the life-altering consequences of a criminal record just for possessing a substance that is safer than alcohol. Taxpayers certainly don’t want to foot the bill for it, and fortunately they will not have to any longer.”
Prior to this change, Delaware placed 17th in the nation in per capita arrests for marijuana possession, according to a study published by the ACLU. “State governments are realizing it makes no sense to criminalize substantial portions of their populations for marijuana possession,” O’Keefe said. “It diverts law enforcement resources from serious crimes and takes a toll on the lives of their citizens. Delaware is moving in the right direction, but there’s still plenty of room for progress. Most voters think the state should treat marijuana similarly to alcohol, and we hope their lawmakers will explore that option.” Based on the ways that the path to legalization have unfolded in other states, it is likely that measures furthering legalization could show up in Delaware in the coming year.
There is a drug arrest every 19 seconds in the United States. Of the more than 1.6 million drug arrests in 2009, 82 percent were for possession alone. With many years of stagnation behind us, the counter attack to end the war on drugs is heating up. Missouri passed a similar law to the one passed in Delaware, SB 491, decriminalizing possession of marijuana for those who do not have prior marijuana-related convictions.
Following positive decriminalization efforts in Missouri, a number of medical marijuana initiatives will be showing up on the state’s ballots in 2016. In many ways, it seems that a tipping point has been reached and public opinion can only climb steadily in favor of decriminalization nationwide.