Delaware governor vetoes marijuana legalization bill, setting up historic showdown with Legislature

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Delaware Gov. John Carney announced on Tuesday that he will veto a bill that would legalize the possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana, setting up a historic showdown with the General Assembly.

For years, Carney has not wavered in his position against marijuana legalization. He said in a statement that he does not "believe that promoting or expanding the use of recreational marijuana is in the best interests of the state of Delaware, especially our young people."

Gov. John Carney delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber on Jan. 20, 2022.
Gov. John Carney delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber on Jan. 20, 2022.

Carney said he supports the use of medical marijuana and decriminalization of marijuana. He cited his decision to veto due to questions surrounding "long-term health and economic impacts" of marijuana and "serious law enforcement concerns."

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This is likely the most controversial veto of Carney's tenure as governor and is a major break from those in the state and national Democratic Party. Carney said in a statement that he understands "that some hold a different view on this issue."

The legislation will be returned to the General Assembly, where it would need to receive a three-fifths vote in each chamber to override the veto. The initial vote surpassed that benchmark, and had some bipartisan support.

It is incredibly rare for the Delaware General Assembly to override a governor's veto. The last successful override was in 1977, according to state historians.

Carney, who is in his second term as governor and cannot run for re-election, had three options he could have made when it came to this bill: He could sign, veto or let the bill become law without his signature.

Rep. Ed Osienski, the Newark Democrat who has led legalization efforts, said in a statement that he is "deeply disappointed" in Carney's decision especially, since the governor "could have allowed the bill to become law without his signature, which would have preserved both his personal opposition and the will of the residents and legislators."

Osienski said he will review his options and decide "any next steps at a later time." The General Assembly is currently in two-week recess.

“Unfortunately," he said, "the governor has chosen to ignore the will of residents and a bipartisan super majority of the General Assembly by vetoing HB 371."

Sen. Trey Paradee, the Senate's prime sponsor of House Bill 371, and Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola said in a statement that the General Assembly "will not be stopped by this latest setback.”

"While his veto of House Bill 371 will not stop adults from consuming marijuana," they said in a statement, "it will help to preserve the illegal drug market created by 50 years of prohibition and criminalization that historically has been unjustly and inequitably applied to communities of color."

The quest to create a recreational marijuana industry in Delaware hit a major bump last week, when a sick lawmaker caused in a bill seeking to regulate the growing and selling of weed to fail in the House by one vote.

Though it's unclear how much revenue Delaware could bring in from recreational marijuana, early estimates have indicated about $43 million a year. New Jersey saw $2 million in sales on the first day recreational marijuana was available to the public.

Lawmakers expect to make another attempt for a vote on the regulation bill in early June. Even if this bill passes both chambers, Carney will most likely veto it, given his stance on the legalization bill.

This governor's announcement led to immediate calls for the Legislature to override the governor's veto, which lawmakers have resisted for several decades. The last attempt at a veto was in 1990.

Mike Brickner, ACLU of Delaware executive director, said in a statement that the veto is "an affront to the lawmakers, advocates, and residents of Delaware who have shown consistent and overwhelming support for this measure." He urged the General Assembly to override.

"Every day that cannabis possession remains illegal in Delaware," Brickner said, "we are perpetuating racist policy, criminalizing communities of color, and causing undue harm to Delawareans.

"Cannabis use is safe and widely accepted."

Zoe Patchell, the executive director of Delaware Cannabis Advocacy Network, said she hopes lawmakers who support recreational marijuana "will stand firm against the governor."

The veto, Patchell said, "only breeds further disrespect for this draconian law and helps the undermined integrity for institutions." She cited the supermajority support in both chambers, and the significant support from Delawareans.

A University of Delaware 2018 poll found that 60% of residents support legalization.

"It's a sad day for democracy," she said, "that our governor would go against his own party and continue to allow Delawareans to be punished and subjected to intrusive stops and searches for conduct that's now legal in 18 states and our nation's capital."

Contact Meredith Newman at (302) 256-2466 or at mnewman@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MereNewman.

This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Delaware marijuana: Gov. Carney vetoes bill legalizing small amounts