By Terry Rogers
In June, Governor Jack Markell signed a law that decriminalized the possession and private use of small amounts of marijuana. The new legislations lets citizens possess up to one ounce of marijuana and use the drug privately without facing criminal charges. However, those who are caught with any amount of the drug can be charged with a $100 civil fine after the law takes effect in six months.
Delaware became the 20th state to decriminalize possession of marijuana. The District of Columbia has also passed legislation that treats possession of small amounts of the drug a civil offense rather than a criminal offense. There were additions to the bill, however, that severely restricted where people can smoke marijuana and any violation will result in a criminal penalty.
The drug cannot be consumed in a public place which includes any outdoor space within ten feet of a door or window. It is also illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to be in possession or use the drug and it is a criminal offense if someone is caught smoking the drug in their vehicle.
“For us, the law isn’t much different,” said Lieutenant Ed Huey of the Milford Police Department. “You can still be arrested for possession of an ounce or less, but it is more like a traffic ticket. The fine is a civil fine and you won’t have a criminal record as long as you are partaking in your own home. However, if you are smoking on your front step, you could face a criminal charge because it may be deemed a public area.”
The legislation was passed in an effort to reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system and to refocus resources to possession of drugs with more serious consequences. Some police agencies say that there are some questions about how the law can be applied. Police leaders want the state to clarify what constitutes a public place more clearly, questioning whether a public area in an apartment complex could result in a criminal charge. Lt. Huey says he believes it would.
“It is a public area, the law clearly says a public place,” he explained. “The law is designed so that you can smoke marijuana in the privacy of your home, not in public.” Senator Margaret Rose Henry agreed with Lt. Huey’s assessment. She sponsored the legislation in the Delaware Senate and stated that people should “do this in their own homes. It should not be done in cars. It should be done in the privacy of your own home.”
The new law does not affect laws that permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The state recently opened the first medical cannabis clinic. The new clinic, known as the First State Compassion Center, is located near Wilmington. Approximately 340 Delawareans hold medical marijuana cards in the state that allow them to use the drug to treat cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, glaucoma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
It is still a criminal offense to sell marijuana in the state and to drive a vehicle while under the influence. These offenses as well as smoking within ten feet of a street, sidewalk or other area generally accessible to the public will be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $200 and imprisonment for up to five days. Attorney General Matt Denn says that further clarification will be provided to police agencies, something that is common when new laws are established.