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Opponents of marijuana decriminalization in N.H. face tough questions

An employee weighs portions of retail marijuana to be packaged and sold at 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, Tuesday Dec. 31, 2013. Colorado is making final preparations for marijuana sales to begin Jan. 1, a day some are calling "Green Wednesday." (AP file/Brennan Linsley)

An employee weighs portions of retail marijuana to be packaged and sold at 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, Tuesday Dec. 31, 2013. Colorado is making final preparations for marijuana sales to begin Jan. 1, a day some are calling "Green Wednesday." (AP file/Brennan Linsley)

Three speakers opposed to decriminalizing marijuana, including two state law enforcement employees, faced intense scrutiny for their positions during a hearing before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee yesterday.

“I look at you and you’re here telling us what you’re told to tell us,” Rep. Tim Robertson, a Keene Democrat, said to Chris Casko, an attorney for the New Hampshire Department of Safety. “Do you really personally feel the way you’re talking?”

Casko, who had told the committee that decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana could lead to more usage, said he was not there to share his personal opinions on the matter.

The bill in question, introduced by Rep. Adam Schroadter, a Newmarket Republican, would decriminalize possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, currently an offense that can result in up to seven years in prison and a $100,000 fine. Under this bill, people over 18 possessing this amount must pay a $100 fine and forfeit their drugs; people under 18 will also have to complete substance abuse education and community service. These violations would not go on a person’s criminal record.

New Hampshire is the only New England state that does not decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. Also under the bill, anyone caught growing less than six marijuana plants would be charged with a misdemeanor instead of a felony. It would also decriminalize possession of up to 5 grams of hashish. The House has passed bills decriminalizing marijuana multiple times in recent years, but they’ve never made it through the Senate.

About 10 people testified on the bill, with only Casko, Assistant Attorney General James Vera and Tricia Lucas from the nonprofit group New Futures speaking against it. Casko and Vera said New Hampshire already has the country’s second-highest rate of marijuana usage among youth, and that decriminalizing the drug could increase that usage.

But pro-decriminalization speakers questioned that, pointing to studies that show no correlation between decriminalization and increased usage. Republican Reps. Steve Vaillancourt of Manchester and Kyle Tasker of Northwood also repeatedly suggested prosecutors and police officers could use their time and money more effectively if possessing small amounts of marijuana wasn’t a crime.

“If half your work load disappeared, would there not be more pressing matters to deal with?” Tasker asked. To this, Vera said money not used for marijuana prosecution would of course be used elsewhere, but that he thinks the current penalties are appropriate.

Questions from committee members were so forceful at times that committee chairwoman Rep. Laura Pantelakos, a Portsmouth Democrat, had to remind everyone to remain civil.

Matt Simon, a Goffstown resident and New England director for the Marijuana Policy Project, pointed to two studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that show marijuana usage among teens has not grown in states that decriminalize marijuana. Maine has much looser marijuana laws than New Hampshire, yet its usage rate is declining as New Hampshire’s remains high, he said. Other studies have shown that marijuana is not a gateway to harder drugs, he said.

“The people who argue against these reforms never present that data,” he said. “I’d love to see a study to the contrary, and I’d love to see where their data comes from.”

On growing marijuana, he stressed that growing six plants or less is still illegal under the bill and could bring up to a year of jail time. New Hampshire’s medical marijuana law is strict, he said, and doesn’t include people such as veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anyone choosing to grow marijuana for their own medicinal purposes shouldn’t live in fear that they might face felony sanctions, he said.

But Lucas, of New Futures, told the committee to look carefully at the bill because it goes further than any other decriminalization bill the House has previously passed. A bill passed by the House last year, which the committee had not recommended, would have only decriminalized up to a quarter-ounce of marijuana. That bill did not decriminalize hashish, which is more potent than marijuana.

“My reading is this is far broader and more permissive than anything you’ve seen,” she said.

In response to a question, Lucas said she does believe that criminal arrests change young people’s lives and that she would be open to looking at ways to fix the current system, but that this bill does not do that appropriately.

The committee has until March 6 to make a recommendation on the bill before sending it to the full House.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

Even IF rates of use went up, it doesn't matter because someone shouldn't be locked in a cage for possessing a plant.

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