My Turn: New Hampshire would be wise to pass decriminalization

Last modified: Sunday, June 14, 2015
The New Hampshire Senate recently voted to table House Bill 618, which would have decriminalized first-time offenses of marijuana possession.

Sen. Sharon Carson, the chief opponent of the bill, said in the hearing: “I do not need to remind you of the people in our lives who have been affected by addictions, as there is not a person in this chamber, or in the balcony or listening online who has not had some sort of impact.” I applaud that she seems to feel compassion for drug users and those close to them, but the evidence shows her attack on the decriminalization of marijuana to be an uncompassionate one.

In order for the criminalization of marijuana to be a compassionate approach, it would have to actually deter marijuana use. And yet, in spite of harsh penalties for simple possession of marijuana (up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine), New Hampshire still ranks in the top seven states in the nation in terms of per capita marijuana use, with total drug-related arrests continuing to rise. (New Hampshire saw a 4 percent increase in total drug-related arrests from 2012 to 2013.)

Meanwhile, other cultures that have experimented with drug legalization or decriminalization are enjoying many positive benefits. Portugal, for instance, decriminalized all drugs in 2001, and while it saw a brief rise in drug use at first, it has seen a steady decline since 2007. In particular, drug-abuse related deaths have dropped nearly 75 percent, and drug users seeking help “rose dramatically.”

If compassion is our goal, then why saddle drug users with a criminal record? Who actually benefits from turning drug users into criminals, rather than making it clear to them that they can find the help they need without fearing persecution?

It certainly isn’t the taxpayers. According to a study done by the ACLU, New Hampshire spent more than $6.5 million enforcing marijuana laws in 2010, only to have drug use and arrests continue to rise steadily to present day. Surely this money could have been spent better elsewhere – on pursuing violent criminals, for instance, or returned to the taxpayers themselves.

It certainly isn’t New Hampshire’s African-Americans. According to a 2013 ACLU study, black people are 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in New Hampshire than white people, despite similar rates of use.

It certainly isn’t the people who get arrested for marijuana possession, either. In New Hampshire in 2012, 2,327 of our sons, daughters, friends, neighbors and co-workers were arrested for simple marijuana possession. Aside from the fees and statutory penalties they faced, they also were denied the opportunity to work (due to having a misdemeanor on their record), lost educational grants and perhaps even their children, if they were found to have marijuana in their home.

And while these punishments are supposed to scare would-be marijuana users into passing instead of puffing, they do nothing of the sort. The criminalization of cannabis in the United States and Australia had no discernible impact on the rates of marijuana use when those laws were first imposed. Most marijuana users are like people who speed in their car – they assume they won’t get caught and have no intrinsic motivation to follow laws they don’t believe in.

And let’s be clear – these are laws that the people of New Hampshire, by and large, don’t believe in. According to a 2013 Granite State Poll conducted by WMUR, 60 percent of New Hampshire citizens support legalization of marijuana up to 1 ounce. And that’s legalization, meaning no penalties whatsoever for people found to be in possession of 1 ounce of marijuana. What the Senate tabled was decriminalization, which is a far less dramatic change.

The New Hampshire House has responded to its constituents, pushing forth legislation to the Senate time and time again (this most recent time in excess of 80 percent in favor of decriminalization), only to have it batted back in their face each time.

So if 60 percent of Granite Staters are for outright legalization and 80 percent of the House is for decriminalization, why did nine state senators try to kill this bill before it could even be considered for amendments? Why did Sens. Carson, Forrester, Daniels and Boutin so vigorously oppose the bill, even as their constituents desire that it pass?

Do the people of New Hampshire need representatives who will go against their express wishes because they feel they know better than we do?

I don’t think the senators opposing this bill lack compassion for drug users and their families. I believe that, in their hearts, they believe stiffer penalties will deter drug use and save a lot of people a lot of heartache, overall.

The problem is that there is no data to support the way they feel. New Hampshire is the last state in New England that turns its casual marijuana users into criminals. It’s time that we leave the failed policies of the drug war past behind, and move into a future of compassion. Decriminalization will be the first step in that direction.

(James Davis of Dover is a summer camp director and camp consultant, as well as a father of two.)