N.H. lawmakers on pot panel begin examination of legalization

Monitor staff
Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A commission tasked with exploring marijuana legalization in New Hampshire held its first meeting Tuesday, setting off a yearlong examination process ahead of its final report next November.

Created by House Bill 215, the commission is charged with looking at what might happen if the state legalized marijuana, regulating and taxing it like alcohol, along the model of other states.

The goal is broad. Among the topics to be considered, according to the commission, are how legalization might affect the opioid crisis, crime rates, children’s health, DUI accidents, taxation policies and New Hampshire’s brand.

“To me, in simple form, I think it’s our job to identify the good, the bad and the ugly of legalization,” Rep. Patrick Abrami, the commission’s chairman, said at the meeting Tuesday.

The commission will reach out to states that have already undertaken the effort, such as Colorado, which implemented legalization in 2014, and Massachusetts, which will roll out its legalization effort next summer. Members will try to set up video conferences with state officials over Skype, said Abrami, a Stratham Republican.

But advocates for legalization aren’t holding their breath for reform.

“I have very, very little hope that this commission could at the end of next year recommend legalization,” said Matt Simon, New England Political Director of the Marijuana Policy Project, who attended the meeting. “It’s theoretically possible, but I have no hope that it will happen.”

Comprising representatives from medical groups, law enforcement and state agencies, as well as legislators, the group is stacked with those who already oppose legalization, Simon said.

An earlier version of the bill creating the commission had provided for representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and the Marijuana Policy Project – both of which support legalization – but the spots were eliminated shortly before final passage, Simon said.

Those on the commission, though, say they’re leaving any preconceptions at the door.

“We have to look at the issues from all angles, and from an open mind,” Abrami said.

So far, seven states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, including many of New Hampshire’s neighbors. In July, Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana; that measure went into effect last month.

New Hampshire’s decriminalization law means those found by law enforcement with less than three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana may not be charged criminally – however, the drug can still be seized and the person can receive a civil fine.

Legalization would allow full use of cannabis in certain situations, though age limits and driving regulations – similar to alcohol – would likely apply.

In recent years, New Hampshire residents have begun to warm to the idea of full legalization; 61 percent supported legalization in a WMUR poll from July 2016.

Abrami dismissed the polling, saying many don’t have all the facts and that New Hampshire should not follow the example of other states and hold a referendum.

“Referendums are beauty contests,” he said. “Not everyone has all the facts. That’s why this commission is supposed to dig out all of the facts and make a recommendation.”

That idea appeals to Simon, who says his organization welcomes the chance to take an evidence-based approach.

And though he maintains that legalization in the Granite State is not likely to happen in 2018, Simon predicted that with Maine, Vermont, and soon Massachussetts jumping on the trend, the issue will likely be on voters’ minds during the fall campaign season.

That could mean a renewed effort to legalize during the 2019 legislative session, Simon said.

But for now, Simon said he appreciates Abrami’s open-minded tone.

“Given that I’ve been very critical of the makeup of the commission, I think this meeting went as well as could be expected,” he said.

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