- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

DOVER, Del. (AP) - The state House voted along party lines Tuesday to approve a bill decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The legislation, which cleared the House on a 24-14 vote, with no Republican support, now goes to the Senate. Democratic Gov. Jack Markell has indicated that he supports the measure.

The bill makes possession by adults of “personal use” quantity of marijuana, defined as an ounce or less, a civil offense punishable by a fine of $100, rather than a crime.

But smoking marijuana in a moving vehicle, or in an area accessible to the public, would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $200 and imprisonment of up to five days.

The legislation defines areas accessible to the public to include outdoor locations on private property that are within 10 feet of a street or sidewalk, and outdoor areas within 10 feet of the doors or windows of any public or private building.

The bill also keeps simple possession or use of an ounce or less a criminal offense for anyone under 18. For those between the ages of 18 and 21, a first offense would result in a civil penalty, while any subsequent offense would be a misdemeanor.

Supporters of the bill say it is an attempt to prevent otherwise law-abiding pot smokers from ending up with criminal records that could jeopardize their futures.

“The goal of the bill is not, and I repeat, not, legalization…. All we are doing is decriminalizing the possession of small amounts,” said chief sponsor Rep. Helene Keeley, a Wilmington Democrat.

Keeley said she did her best to address the concerns of law enforcement groups by inserting several new provisions into the legislation.

Opponents nevertheless remain concerned that the legislation sends the wrong message to children, and that it will lead to greater acceptance and use of illegal drugs while hampering the abilities of police to conduct searches and seizures.

“Some penalties in the law are meant to be punitive, … but when you’re talking about young people with marijuana, were trying to help them,” said Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro.

“Are we doing young people a favor by taking away this disincentive for behavior that is destructive to themselves and to their families?” Collins added.

Other lawmakers noted that a person between 18 and 21 who is caught with a small amount of marijuana could be let off the first time with a civil penalty, while that same person, if caught drinking a beer, could be charged with a crime.

“It clearly sounds like the bar is much different for the alcohol,” said Rep. Mike Ramone, a Newark Republican, who declined to cast a vote.

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