Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly420: Delaware marijuana decrim starts tonight

Adults in possession of one ounce or less will get a $100 civil fine.

Cyn Ferguson, executive director of Delaware NORML, in an undated photograph.
Cyn Ferguson, executive director of Delaware NORML, in an undated photograph.Read more

At midnight tonight Delaware will enact statewide marijuana decriminalization. But don't celebrate with a joint in your front yard quite yet.

The First State joins 18 others, including neighboring Maryland, along with dozens of municipalities in downgrading simple possession.

The law, HB39, was passed by the legislature an signed in June by Gov. Jack Markell.

Previously, those caught with any amount of weed faced jail time, more than $500 in fines and suspension of their driver's license.

Now adults 21 and over found in possession of one ounce or less will get a $100 civil fine. The police will still confiscate the stash.

The rules are a bit different for those under the age of 21.

Those 18-20 years old get the civil fine for the first offense but on second and subsequent offenses will be convicted of an unclassified misdemeanor.

Once offenders turn 21 they can petition to have their records expunged of any misdemeanor offense.

Those under 18 still face a juvenile criminal charge.

Paraphernalia laws also changed a bit under the new law. If adults are caught with a pipe or a bong a civil fine of $100 can also be assessed. But if an individual is also in possession of some marijuana and a smoking implement only one fine can be given at a time.

Smoking or possession in public is still strictly prohibited. Those caught lighting up out in the open face a criminal charge that could bring up to 5 days in jail and a $200 fine.

Also notable is that hashish, hash oil and edibles would be considered "derivatives" and possession of some dabs or brownies would not be covered under decrim.

Delaware NORML created an easy to use pamphlet explaining the new law. Read it here.

"Because it is complicated we created the 'Know the Law' pamphlet and we put it in the Out and About local free paper," said DENORML executive director Cyn Ferguson.

"A lot of people are really happy," said Ferguson, "People, really conservative people, pull me aside every week and say to me that they are so happy that marijuana is decriminalized. They don't even smoke it, they just don't agree with prohibition."

Delaware NORML testified during legislative hearings, held rally events and marches to support the bill. Ferguson credits her chapter member Zoe Patchell for leading that effort.

Ferguson got involved with cannabis reform efforts for personal reasons.

"My nephew got caught with 0.4 grams of marijuana. Not even enough for a joint. He paid more than $1,100 in fines and lost his license for two years," said Ferguson, "Now someone like him...if they searched him, he would get a $100 fine and take his roach from him."

It took two legislative sessions to pass the decrim bill in Delaware. There is active legislation to fully legalize marijuana but Gov. Markell said he won't allow it to go forward.

So advocates like Ferguson are focusing on the future under a new administration.

"We have a strategic planning committee. Our goal is to develop a constituency of people from all backgrounds and walks of life so when we do hit hard in 2017 we'll have a big group to go with it," said Ferguson.

She also doesn't like the idea of overly restrictive regulations or big money interests getting involved with fully legal cannabis.

"I have different opinion of tax and regulate. I actually like Washington D.C.'s law where you can grow it and give it away. I'd like to have something based on our local economy. Our farmers should do the growing and we should keep the retailers local," explained Ferguson.

"When medical marijuana first came in Delaware NORML was getting calls from farmers asking how they could get involved," she said. "But that didn't happen."

Markell only authorized a single medical cannabis dispensary. It took more than three years after the law passed to open this summer. The Delaware Division of Public Health is now accepting applications to expand the program with new facilities.

When it comes to going fully green Ferguson's vision is clear, "Growing through farming and selling in a way to keep it in the state. No corporate marijuana."

Carl Kanefsky, spokesman for the state Attorney General, said his office will provide guidance to police about how to implement the new law.

"The Attorney General has been generally supportive of possession of small amounts being treated as a civil rather than a criminal offense (and) supported the legislation that changed the law," Kanefsky said.

The News Journal in Wilmington published memorandums explaining marijuana decriminalization issued by the Delaware State Prosecutor to the Chiefs of Police and by the Chief Magistrate to judges. Read them here.

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and on the board of PhillyNorml. Contact him at