The first measure, House Bill 1, which would legalize cannabis for adults, passed the Senate with a vote of 16-4, while House Bill 2, legislation to set up a framework for regulated recreational marijuana sales, was approved by a vote of 15-5. If they become law, the bills will make Delaware the 22nd state in the union to legalize adult-use cannabis.
The bills now head to the desk of Delaware Governor John Carney, who last year vetoed legislation to legalize adult-use cannabis, making him the only Democratic governor in the nation to make such a move. The state House of Representatives then failed to override the veto, leaving lawmakers to try again during the current legislative session. This year, however, both houses of the Delaware legislature have passed the bills with a veto-proof majority, making final passage of the bills with or without Carney’s signature all but guaranteed.
Cannabis Policy Reform Marches Forward
The neighboring states of New Jersey and Maryland have also passed legislation to legalize cannabis for use by adults, making Delaware one of the few holdouts in the Northeast left to end the prohibition of marijuana. After Tuesday’s Senate votes to legalize the bills, Brian Vicente, founding partner at the cannabis and psychedelics law firm Vicente LLP, hailed the new progress for the cannabis policy reform movement in the United States.
“The impending passage of legalization in Delaware is a historic and important step towards establishing the Atlantic Seaboard as ground for legal adult cannabis regulation,” Vicente wrote in an email to High Times. “For many years, legalization was considered a West Coast phenomenon, but the East Coast is now following suit. While we are still a ways away from having cannabis legal from Florida to Maine, Delaware further cements the East Coast as an area turning its back on marijuana prohibition.”
Neither of the bills passed on Tuesday, however, include restorative justice provisions to expunge past convictions for cannabis-related offenses like those included in the marijuana legalization plans of many states in recent years. Natalie Papillion, chief operating officer of the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to the release of all cannabis prisoners, called out the lack of expungement measures in Delaware’s marijuana legalization plan.
“Legalization alone cannot heal the wounds of prohibition. True justice demands legislation that provides record clearance and resentencing for those affected,” she wrote in a statement to High Times. “It’s disheartening that Delaware has ignored the opportunity to start repairing these harms by failing to incorporate retroactive relief measures into this bill.”
Legalization Has Broad Public Support in Delaware
Polling in Delaware shows that nearly three-quarters of adults in the state support legalizing marijuana, while only 18% said that cannabis should remain illegal. Nearly nine out of 10 Democratic respondents said they approve of cannabis legalization, while 73% of independent voters also said they support ending the prohibition of marijuana in the state. Less than half (47%) of Republicans said cannabis should continue to be against the law, while 42% of GOP respondents support legalization.
“With this latest vote, the fight to legalize cannabis in Delaware is nearing the finish line. Cannabis policy reform has garnered widespread support among Delawareans for years. Meanwhile, neighboring states have already made the move to legalize cannabis,” Olivia Naugle, senior policy analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement from the cannabis reform group. “It’s encouraging to see the legislature advance these bills with veto-proof majorities. We hope Gov. Carney will heed the will of the people and allow Delaware to become the 22nd state to legalize cannabis. Any further delay to cannabis legalization would be a detriment to the state.”
Attorney Vicente said that the legalization of cannabis in Delaware could also give additional support to the effort to legalize cannabis at the federal level, noting that state lawmakers are increasingly in favor of reform.
“Importantly, after this law passes, Delaware will send two U.S. Senators and one House member to Washington, D.C., with a clear mandate to pass federal reform,” he said. “Delaware is an example of a relatively new trend in cannabis reform, with its adult-use law passing through its legislature instead of by a popular vote.”
The legislation now heads to the governor’s desk for his consideration. Before Tuesday’s vote in the Senate, Carney spokeswoman Emily Hershman said in a statement that the governor “continues to have strong concerns about the unintended consequences of legalizing marijuana for recreational use in our state, especially about the impacts on our young people and highway safety.”
“He knows others have honest disagreements on this issue,” she added. “But we don’t have anything new to share today about how the Governor will act on HB 1 and HB 2 if they reach his desk.”
Delaware does have an expungement law already in place. Following the passage of Clean Slate legislation in 2021, the Clean Slate Delaware campaign works to expand access to second chances by ensuring that people living with a Delaware record are aware of eligibility requirements, updated laws, and how they can start the process of clearing eligible records. Thanks to reforms in recent years, including the passage of SB 37 in 2019 and SB 112 in 2021, the number of records that are eligible for mandatory expungement has grown significantly.