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In New Hampshire, the beginning of a long debate over marijuana legalization

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt thinks it is time to legalize marijuana. But even he was surprised by this month’s House vote in favor of his bill.

“I’ve said all along that I was surprised that it passed – obviously pleasantly surprised,” said the Manchester Republican.

The bill is now in the hands of the House Ways and Means Committee, which will hold a public hearing this week. It must return to the House floor and pass the full House again. It would then face a tough fight in the Republican-controlled Senate, which killed a bill last year that would have decriminalized marijuana possession. Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, has vowed to veto the bill if it reaches her desk.

Supporters, and even some opponents, of marijuana legalization agree: It is an inevitability. They point to public opinion polls and states such as Colorado and Washington state, where the drug is now legal.

“I think it was just a vote to say: Let’s keep our eyes open, folks,” said Rep. David Kidder, a Republican from New London who supports legalization but acknowledges it will not become law this year. “It’s coming, so let’s get it right.”

Vaillancourt guesses New Hampshire will legalize the drug within five years. That time frame could suit some of the bill’s opponents, who say they want to wait and watch what happens in other states.

But the decision did not fall along party lines. The Democratic-controlled House approved the bill on a close vote, 170-162, with 106 Democrats and 64 Republicans voting for legalization. Eighty-two Democrats, 79 Republicans and one independent voted against legalization.

The House Ways and Means Committee is set to hold a public hearing about the bill Thursday. Though its fate when it returns to the House floor is unclear, several representatives from Merrimack County said last week that their votes are unlikely to change.

House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff has

voted in favor of decriminalizing marijuana possession and allowing medical marijuana, but he does not think the state should take a bigger step.

“I think the idea of having shops selling (recreational) marijuana and all the rest of it, I don’t believe New Hampshire’s ready for that,” said Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat.

Decriminalization

Marijuana decriminalization, which passed the House last year but was killed in the Senate, is not the same as legalization. Marijuana would remain illegal if decriminalized; the bill proposed last year would have reduced possession of a quarter-ounce or less of the drug to a violation-level offense with a $200 fine. The House has voted to decriminalize the drug four times in the past several years, and the Senate has killed each attempt.

Marijuana legalization would go beyond decriminalization, making it legal for anyone 21 or older to purchase and possess up to 1 ounce of the drug. Vaillancourt’s bill for legalization allows individuals to grow up to six marijuana plants for personal use. The state would develop regulations for marijuana manufacturing and retail facilities, and they would be taxed. Public smoking of marijuana would be prohibited.

“I have no reason to oppose this at all,” said Rep. JR Hoell, a Republican from Dunbarton.

Hoell voted in support of legalizing marijuana, and he said he strongly believes in decriminalization.

“I think we as a society have taken the wrong moral approach to marijuana,” he said. “We criminalize it, we throw kids in jail and we ruin their lives forever, between the criminal record and not really reforming them.”

Representatives are not necessarily voting based on personal experience with the drug; Hoell said he has never used it, noting, “My brain’s worth too much.” Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, a Concord Democrat who supports legalization, said she has been around people using it and “didn’t care for the odor.” Vaillancourt, who said he sponsored the bill because he considers himself a libertarian, admits to using the drug.

“I have used marijuana, but I always like to then quickly say I’ve spent a lot of time in the Netherlands,” he said.

A benefit of revenue

Though Vaillancourt said he is not focused on revenue the state could gain from legalizing marijuana, it’s a benefit others see in his bill.

Gile said she has always supported efforts to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize the drug, adding, “We’re in the business of selling alcohol on our highways.” She sees alcohol as more dangerous than marijuana, and she sees increased state revenue as an important part of its legalization.

“I would make it expensive, and I would also tax it extensively,” she said.

But Rep. David Hess, a Republican from Hooksett who is opposed to all forms of marijuana legalization or decriminalization, said there are “insurmountable problems” in the bill’s proposed tax and regulation method.

Under the bill, the state Department of Revenue Administration would control the taxation of marijuana. Retail and manufacturing facilities would be taxed at a rate of $30 per ounce, and sales would be taxed at 15 percent.

“That alone is going to reinforce the continuation of a black market because people will be able to pay 15 percent less for it on the black market,” Hess said. “So the bill doesn’t make sense. The concept of legalizing marijuana I am opposed to, anyway.”

The bill was sent to the House Ways and Means Committee to review its proposed taxes.

“I don’t know if the DRA really has that expertise as far as regulating shops and other things,” Shurtleff said. “So I know it’s going to be a challenge for the Ways and Means Committee.”

‘A long way to go’

Representatives interviewed last week who support marijuana legalization acknowledged that its proposed taxes and regulation need further consideration.

“The bill still has a long way to go, but yes, I’m in favor of the concept,” said Rep. Candace Bouchard, a Concord Democrat.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said the Senate is unlikely to reach the same surprise outcome as the House.

“Based on the conversations I’ve had with people, I think it’s going to face pretty tough sledding,” said Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican.

And Vaillancourt knows only a few votes could keep it from reaching the Senate.

“I’m not certainly going to count my chickens in the Senate until I can get through the House,” he said.

But many opponents of marijuana legalization, including Hassan and Bradley, support New Hampshire’s medical marijuana law. It passed the House and Senate last year, and Hassan signed the bill.

“I had consistently opposed it over the years, but I talked to enough patients that convinced me that there was no other good option for cancer patients, in particular,” Bradley said. “I don’t think we’re there yet at all on legalization for recreational purposes.”

While 20 states and Washington, D.C., allow medical marijuana, only Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational marijuana. Both states passed the law through voter referendums, not the state legislatures. And in New Hampshire, state officials are still working on the implementation of the new medical marijuana law.

Hassan does not support marijuana legalization. She has faced criticism for that stance; more than 1,344 comments were left on the governor’s Facebook post about her position on the bill, in what could be a sign of changing public opinion.

Rep. Gary Richardson thinks that in five years, New Hampshire lawmakers might wonder why they did not legalize marijuana earlier. Richardson, a Hopkinton Democrat, supports legalization.

“I think it is symbolic to some extent,” he said of this month’s vote. “I think that legislation frequently gets amended and improved over the legislative process, and this was just the first step in what I suspect will be a lengthy process.”

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)

Related

Legalizing marijuana in N.H.: Votes by Merrimack County’s representatives

Friday, January 24, 2014

The New Hampshire House voted this month, 170-162, to legalize marijuana. The bill is now going before the House Ways and Means Committee, and must again pass the full House before it can be sent to the Senate. Here’s how Merrimack County’s representatives voted, listed alphabetically by last name: Yes ∎ Caroletta Alicea, Boscawen Democrat ∎ Christy Bartlett, Concord Democrat ∎ Candace Bouchard, …

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