WILMINGTON, Del. — Voting along party lines, the Delaware state Senate gave final approval Thursday to a measure that decriminalizes the possession and private use of small amounts of marijuana, and Gov. Jack Markell almost immediately signed the legislation into law.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed a marijuana decriminalization bill Thursday after it passed the Democratic-controlled Senate. Republicans, who did not support the bill, argued that decriminalizing marijuana would encourage more young people to us USA TODAY
The bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Helene Keeley,, allows Delawareans to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and use the drug privately without facing criminal sanctions.
Criminal penalties for simple possession will be replaced with a civil $100 fine. The law takes effect in six months.
The decriminalization measure, which cleared the House earlier this month, passed despite significant opposition from police groups, and from Republicans.
Selling marijuana remains criminal under the law. No Republican voted in favor of the legislation in either the House or the Senate.
"This is a vote we're going to really, really regret," Republican Sen. Colin Bonini said. "Would you want your kid smoking weed. I think the answer is overwhelmingly no."
In a statement after Thursday's vote, Robert Capecchi, a lobbyist with the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, said "marijuana is an objectively less harmful substance than alcohol, and most Americans now agree it should be treated that way. Delaware has taken an important step toward adopting a more sensible marijuana policy," Capecchi said.
Nineteen other states and the District of Columbia have stopped charging citizens criminally for possessing small amounts of marijuana. In Delaware, like in other states, there is evidence that the law is disproportionately enforced along racial lines, which was a driving force behind the bill's passage.
Blacks in Delaware were three times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2010, despite accounting for a much smaller portion of the population, according to a 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Marijuana arrests previously threatened to saddle Delawareans with a criminal record, something the legislation's supporters believed was unnecessary for a drug that they say poses few risks.
"It's safer for me to choose cannabis over alcohol," Zoe Patchell, a Delaware marijuana activist with Cannabis Bureau of Delaware, said during committee testimony Wednesday.
The bill's supporters did give some ground to opponents, especially those in the law enforcement community. Language added by amendments strictly defines a public place where it will remain criminal to consume marijuana. Public places include any outdoor space within 10 feet of any window or sidewalk.
Delawareans under 21 also still face criminal penalties if caught with marijuana under an amendment added in the House. And it will remain criminal to consume marijuana in a moving vehicle under the current legislation.
Police groups remained concerned throughout legislative debate that decriminalizing marijuana possession could limit their ability to initiate searches that could lead to even more substantial charges for drug dealers and traffickers.
State Attorney General Matt Denn, the state's top law enforcement official, said Thursday that he supported the decriminalization measure. "I've said for some time that we're generally supportive of possession of small amounts being treated as a civil rather than a criminal offense," Denn said.