VICTORY! HB39 was signed by Governor Markell on June 18th and will go into effect in six months. Click here to read more.

Here in Delaware, the current direct and indirect punishments for marijuana possession are too severe and disproportionately applied to African-Americans. In addition, marijuana enforcement costs Delaware millions of dollars annually—all to fight use of a drug that is far less harmful than alcohol. 

Although more can and should be done to reform Delaware’s drug laws, HB 39, which would decriminalize possession and private use of small amounts of marijuana, is an important step.

Disproportionate Consequences

Current law criminalizing marijuana possession leads to consequences far out of proportion to the individual and social harm that results from use of the drug. 

Mere arrest for marijuana possession—without prosecution or conviction—can lead to:

  • loss of current employment or future job opportunities
  • child custody problems
  • difficulty in leasing or renting housing

If convicted, in addition to the direct criminal consequences, an individual can lose one’s driver’s license, federal and state student financial aid, and public housing.

A “criminal history” built on minor marijuana convictions can categorize defendants as “career criminals” for sentencing purposes in subsequent cases, triggering harsh mandatory sentences for people who would otherwise be given leniency as first-time offenders.

Racially Disparate Policing

And even though use of marijuana is similar across racial groups, policing of marijuana possession is disproportionately focused on African-Americans. Blacks are three times more likely than Whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Delaware. This means that for every 200 Whites arrested, there are 600 Blacks arrested. The disparity is greatest in Sussex County, where Black residents are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White residents. In New Castle County, the disparity rate is 3.1, while in Kent County it is 2.6.

Cost Ineffective

In addition to the human cost of the current misguided policy, there is a financial cost far outweighing any public benefit. In 2010, Delaware spent over $13 million on the police, judicial, legal and corrections costs of marijuana possession enforcement. That same year, there were 2,554 arrests in Delaware for marijuana possession—47% of all drug arrests in Delaware—meaning that taxpayers paid approximately $5,182 per offense. Marijuana usage rates have not decreased as a result of these efforts. This has not been money well spent. Now is the time to direct our law enforcement resources to more productive ends.