Editorial: Marijuana vote signals swiftly changing times
There are times when you just have to love the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Year after year, members vote on the same issues with the same outcomes and then, every once in a great while, there is drama, surprise and independence of thought.
Last Wednesday was one of those days.
At issue was legislation to legalize marijuana in New Hampshire. It’s the sort of bill journalists and voters haven’t paid much attention to in the past because the odds of it garnering anywhere near a majority seemed so far-fetched. This time around, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan had vowed to veto the bill. Opposition in the Republican Senate is strong. Law enforcement officials are largely against it. But in the House just enough members were willing to set aside the concerns of party and vote their conscience.
When the smoke clears, it’s unlikely New Hampshire will end this year’s legislative session with a new marijuana law on the books. Even in the unlikely event the Senate approved such a measure, overcoming a gubernatorial veto is hard to imagine. But last week’s vote is a remarkable testament to how quickly the times are changing.
Consider that New Hampshire adopted a law legalizing marijuana for medical purposes just last year – and only after years and years of debate. The medical marijuana law is so new that the rules for implementation haven’t even been written, to the frustration of cancer patients and others.
Proponents of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes no doubt imagined another long struggle. But Thursday’s vote signaled that road may not be as long as they think. A poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center last fall found a majority of New Hampshire voters support legalization. And when those same voters were given the specific details of the bill debated last week – including yearly licensing for retailers and, critically, a hefty tax on all marijuana sales – support grew to 60 percent.
The pattern here is reminiscent of the state’s long debates over the rights of gay couples to marry. The most dramatic chapter in that fight was the legalization of “civil unions” – a brief, transitional institution that somehow satisfied lawmakers who were uncomfortable attaching to the word “marriage” to same-sex unions. But while that represented a hard-fought compromise, it sure didn’t last very long. The vote to replace it with marriage equality came quickly. And even when opponents of gay marriage took leadership positions in the Legislature, they couldn’t muster the votes to repeal gay marriage. A seismic change was here to stay. And in the months and years that followed, voters and judges in jurisdictions across the country have followed suit.
As the marijuana debate continues in New Hampshire, policy-makers here have Colorado and Washington state from which to seek guidance. Both states approved legalization by popular referendum. Their experiences, pro and con, will no doubt inform the decisions in New Hampshire and across the country.
Meanwhile, many of the pro-legalization activists urging Hassan to reconsider her veto pledge have pointed to the apparent hypocrisy in the state’s hawking liquor, even from its highways, while prohibiting marijuana. Some have pointed to the governor’s own press conference back in December, urging residents and tourists to buy special bottles of commemorative Old Man of the Mountain vodka.
In the past, it was easy for politicians to brush away such contradictions. Not so easy today.