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House committee rejects N.H. marijuana legalization bill

  • Members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee consider House Bill 656, which would have legalized marijuana sales in New Hampshire. The bill failed to win the committee’s support in a 13-7 vote. ETHAN DeWITT



Monitor staff
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A bill to legalize marijuana in New Hampshire was rejected by a House committee Tuesday after legislators voiced concerns about conflict with federal law and potential health consequences for a state in the throes of an opioid crisis.

Proposed before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, House Bill 656 would have legalized the personal use of cannabis for people 21 and older and created a licensing system to allow businesses to sell the substance, which would be taxed by the state.

Opponents warned that full legalization could add to the opioid crisis by encouraging drug use and put New Hampshire in direct conflict with federal law, which continues to classify marijuana as a prohibited Schedule I drug. Many also argued it would encourage addictive behavior in children.

Supporters countered that the legislation would bring New Hampshire in line with its bordering states – all of which have legalized the drug in recent years – and allow residents to exercise their free will.

“It’s a choice of an individual to decide to do it,” said Rep. Larry Gagne, R-Manchester. “If the education comes from the household in the proper way, then the kids won’t do it.”

Vice Chairman Frank Sapareto, R-Derry – who proposed the bill – said legalization could help wean people off opioids, citing recovering veterans he had spoken to. Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, meanwhile, said the bill would help keep people out of the criminal justice system and reduce crime.

“What we’ve come to realize over the past four decades is that the war on marijuana has been a failure,” Cushing said. “Rather than dealing with the use of cannibis as a criminal justice matter, we should deal with it as a public health matter.”

But the majority in the room had concerns.

Some, such as Rep. Roger Berube, D-Somersworth, spoke against potential conflicts with federal law enforcement, who could still make arrests. Others, like Rep. Dennis Green, R-Hampstead, raised Second Amendment concerns, citing recent federal circuit court decisions that upheld firearms restrictions on those with medical marijuana licenses.

“I don’t really care what the District of Columbia, and Maine and Mass. are doing,” said Rep. Dennis Fields, R-Sanbornton. “I think this is New Hampshire and we should stick to what we do.”

And Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, said the present opioid crisis should rule out a legalization effort.

“I think people out there would think we were completely nuts to legalize marijuana right now,” she said.

In the end, 13 legislators representing both parties voted not to recommend the bill to the House; seven voted in favor. An earlier amendment, which would have increased options for home growing and added regulations to keep marijuana away from minors, also failed, 13-7.

The vote comes a month after the first meeting of a yearlong study commission to explore the economic and health impacts of legalization in the Granite State. Proponents of legalization have expressed concern that the commission is stacked with people who oppose legalization.

In July, Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana; that measure went into effect in September.

Drug treatment advocates praised Tuesday’s committee decision. Kate Frey, vice president of advocacy at New Futures, called the vote “an important step in keeping New Hampshire a healthy place to live, work, and raise a family.”

Marijuana can act as a gateway to more dangerous substances, Frey said, adding that the effects of full legalization in the eight U.S. states that have made that decision should be studied more closely before New Hampshire makes a move.

“It’s really about prevention, and sending the wrong message if we legalize marijuana,” she said. “The earlier you start experimenting with any substance, the likelihood of having an addiction issue is much greater.”

But Matt Simon, New England Political Director of the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, shrugged the vote off, calling it expected. In recent years, the House has overturned the criminal justice committee’s recommendations and passed marijuana liberalization bills on the floor; most of them die in the Senate, he said.

Pointing to shifting public opinion – a May Granite State Poll found 68 percent support for legalization in New Hampshire – Simon said the organization is content to wait.

“I think the needle moves substantially with each passing year,” he said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at@edewittNH.)