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Delaware lawmakers introduce bill to decriminalize marijuana

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers in Delaware have introduced a bill that would decriminalize possession of a small amount of marijuana, following the lead of nearly 20 U.S. states that have moved to loosen laws surrounding non-medical use of the drug.

The bill, introduced on Thursday, would exempt from prosecution adults 21 and older who possess marijuana for their own personal use and consumption. Personal use was described as possession of 1 ounce or less.

The legislation would also reduce the fine for using marijuana in a public place to $100. Under current Delaware law, marijuana possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a maximum fine of $1,150.

The bill has the support of about 15 Democrats in the House and Senate, but no Republican sponsors. Republicans said they plan to oppose the bill as it heads for a vote before the close of the legislative session next month.

Supporters say decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana would lessen the burden on prisons and the justice system.

"So many people's entry into the criminal justice system involves possession or use of very small amounts of marijuana," state Senator Bryan Townsend told The News Journal newspaper.

"In my mind, marijuana is not in the same grouping as a lot of the drugs we need to be focusing our efforts on," he said.

Republicans took an opposing view.

Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson told The News Journal that he would vote against the bill, saying marijuana was a "pathway to greater drug use."

Both Townsend and Simpson could not be reached immediately for comment.

Democrats control both houses of the Delaware General Assembly by a nearly two-thirds majority over Republicans.

Currently, 17 states have passed laws to decriminalize marijuana use, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a lobbying group.

Washington state and Colorado have legalized recreational use of marijuana.

Possession and use of marijuana continues to be a criminal offense on the federal level.

(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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