DOVER, Del. (AP) — The passage of a bill that could spare some misdemeanor drug offenders from convictions has prompted a conservative Republican senator and gubernatorial candidate to call for the formal legalization of cannabis in Delaware.
The legislation, which would expand probation before judgment to misdemeanor marijuana possession charges, cleared the Senate on Thursday after House passage earlier this month. The bill awaits Gov. Jack Markell's signature.
Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, said the bill removes the last vestiges of holding people criminally accountable for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
Under probation before judgment, a judge defers entry of a conviction if the offender pleads guilty or no contest. If the offender complies with the terms and conditions of a probation period, no conviction will be entered on the record.
Under the bill, probation before judgment could be used in cases of misdemeanor possession of up to six ounces of marijuana, a Senate attorney told lawmakers.
"We have lowered the penalties to the point where it is relatively arbitrary whether the state actually prosecutes people on this or not, and the reality is we don't," said Bonini, adding that he expects cannabis to be legalized nationwide within five years.
"This is basically accepted socially and, quite frankly, politically and legally," he said. "If that the case, we should treat it as such."
Bonini said that he is not in favor of relaxing criminal laws for possession, but that policymakers need to accept reality.
"We've already made this decision, whether you like it or not," he said. "I'm not pleased we're here. I'm not an advocate, … but I think the reality is this is where we are."
Bonini, who said legalization and taxation would be among the issues discussed in his campaign for governor, called for a strict regulatory framework, with tax revenue going to substance abuse treatment programs.
"Let's create a structure that's as beneficial to society as we can make it," he said.
The probation bill, which cleared the Senate on a 12-to-6 vote after passing the House on 37-3 vote, now goes to Markell.
Markell said Thursday that he had not had time to review the legislation, but his office issued a statement a short time later saying he supports the bill.
Markell has previously said, and reiterated Thursday, that he would not sign any legislation legalizing marijuana before he leaves office in January.
Democratic Attorney General Matt Denn, whose office supported the probation bill, also opposes full legalization.
Last year, Markell signed legislation decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. The measure passed the Democratic-led House and Senate on strict party line votes with no Republican support. Bonini said at the time that lawmakers would regret the move.
The decriminalization law, which took effect in December, made possession by an adult of a "personal use" quantity of marijuana, defined as an ounce or less, a civil offense punishable by a fine of $100, rather than a crime. Simple possession remains a criminal offense for anyone under 18. For those between the ages of 18 and 21, a first offense will result in a civil penalty, while any subsequent offense would be a misdemeanor.
Smoking cannabis in a moving vehicle, in public areas, or outdoors on private property within 10 feet of a street, sidewalk or other area generally accessible to the public also is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $200 and imprisonment of up to five days.