DOVER, Del. — From stoned driving to the taxation of marijuana, Delaware would face multiple vexing challenges if lawmakers ever legalize recreational cannabis use, and a state task force is getting ready to dig into those issues.
The panel’s first meeting Wednesday came amid a broader national debate, with a bill introduced in Congress last month to legalize cannabis nationwide, at the same time that Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to crack down on the legalized marijuana industry.
While eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of marijuana, each has done so through referendum, which Delaware does not allow. Vermont lawmakers approved a legalization bill earlier this year, but the measure was vetoed by the state’s Republican governor.
That leaves the possibility that Delaware could be the first state to implement legalization through the legislative process.
Delaware’s task force was formed after a legalization bill stalled in the General Assembly earlier this year.
“The way that the current bill is written, it’s sufficient enough that we could amend it with any recommendations that come out of the task force,” said Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, chief sponsor of the legislation.
Keeley suggested that other states have moved too fast in approving legalization before ensuring that appropriate rules and regulations were in place.
“They’ve done a lot of things backwards,” Keeley said of Colorado and Washington, the first two states to legalize recreational pot use.
The pending bill would not allow Delawareans to grow their own marijuana but would legalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for personal use by adults over age 21. Initial licensing would be limited to 40 retail stores and 75 cultivation facilities.
Supporters of legalization argue that it would eliminate the legal stigma of marijuana use, reduce the black market and the crime that comes with it and raise revenue for the state.
“It’s not a good idea to have laws that are disregarded on a wholesale basis,” said chief public defender Brendan O’Neill, adding that an estimated 100,000 Delawareans regularly use marijuana.
But legalization could be a daunting task, especially given skepticism within the medical community about the effects of long-term marijuana use, and law enforcement concerns about stoned drivers and increased drug activity.
“There are certainly more questions than answers at this point. From the health perspective, we’re still concerned about the long-term impact,” said Jamie Mack, a policy leader with the Division of Public Health.
Other panel members, including Keeley, said impaired driving is a primary concern.
“That is hands-down my number one concern,” Keeley said.
In addition, there is currently no reliable scientific test, similar to breath or blood tests for alcohol, to measure impairment from THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.
“There’s not enough research on marijuana to set a level,” said William Bryson, chairman of the Delaware Police Chiefs Council. Bryson also expressed skepticism about eliminating the black market for marijuana and concern about the potential for a “gray market,” in which pot is grown legally but sold illegally.
“When you tax it, you’re going to raise the price, and people are going to go elsewhere,” he said.
Employers, meanwhile, have a host of concerns about workplace safety, insurance costs, increased liability, and worker productivity and attendance.
On a more practical level, developing a taxation and banking infrastructure for an industry based on a product that remains illegal under federal law could be problematic.
“It could be a very volatile revenue source, because we don’t know what the government might do,” said state finance director Rick Geisenberger.
Collecting taxes on an industry that is based mostly on cash transactions could also be a challenge, Geisenberger added, suggesting that bringing big piles of cash to the Division of Revenue would not be an option.