Proposals for marijuana legalization in N.H. Legislature receive varying level of support
State lawmakers filed bills promoting a wide range of marijuana legalization this session, bills that have received widely varying reactions.
At one end, a bill with broad support would allow people with certain chronic illnesses to use marijuana. At the other, a bill treats the cannabis plant like any cultivated vegetable or herb.
Gov. Maggie Hassan supports allowing regulated access to medical marijuana “with controlled and limited dispensing,” but does not support legalization or decriminalization, according to her spokesman, Marc Goldberg.
Former governor John Lynch vetoed medical marijuana bills in 2009 and 2012.
The medical marijuana bill currently in the House Health, Human Services, and Elderly Affairs Committee has 14 sponsors: six Democrats and eight Republicans, including four senators.
The bill is due for its first hearing Thursday. It would allow patients with a professional diagnosis of cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, ALS, muscular dystrophy, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease or multiple sclerosis to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana.
The bill would also allow registered distributors to possess up to 192 plants and seedlings plus 32 ounces of usable marijuana.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee heard six hours of testimony last Thursday on three bills that would loosen regulations on marijuana possession for all, not just those with certain medical needs.
Rep. Mark Warden, a Manchester Republican, seeks to erase all criminal penalties for marijuana possession from state law. It’s a move he called “the tomatoes bill.”
“It’s a purist approach, because we’re seeking to allow people to grow marijuana as they would tomatoes or roses in their backyard, and return the use of it to a personal choice,” he said.
He doubts the criminal justice committee will recommend the bill, but noted a positive side effect.
“It does make some of the other bills look more palatable,” he said, “but was not my intention at all. I wanted to have the conversation, the debate about cannabis and people’s free choices.”
In the middle, two bills seek different levels of relaxation of current laws and penalties.
Rep. Kyle Tasker, a Nottingham Republican, is the sole sponsor of a bill that would turn possession of an ounce or less of marijuana into a violation, instead of a crime.
It was a crime when he was arrested at age 17.
“Your world goes upside down, your plans for the future go upside down,” he said.
“It was the first time I really quantified that your freedom is only as much as they want to give you,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how free you think you are, it’s quantified by the government.”
A $1,500 lawyer and a $600 fine later, “I didn’t learn a whole lot except not to get caught,” he said.
Now 28, he says the arrest is what spurred him into politics, with the goal of staying in office until the state eased prohibition.
“We’ve got high school kids with a criminal record indefinitely because they don’t do enough to annul it. Everyone wants to do medical marijuana because you want to help the sick people,” he said. “I’m just looking to carve out a little bubble for regular people possessing less than an ounce.”
Under his bill, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana would result in a $100 fine, plus parental notification for a minor. A judge also would have the option of mandating a minor complete community service, a drug awareness program or both.
The fourth bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, legalizes possession of up to one ounce by people ages 21 and older, creates a license to sell marijuana and proposes a tax on the sale of the drug.
The Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee has been talking in recent years about the cost of the prison system and the high rate of recidivism, Warden said, calling Vaillancourt’s bill “maybe a start of a different approach, an approach that is humane and tolerant and focused on education and rehabilitation rather than punishment.”
Vaillancourt could not be reached for comment, but in a blog post Friday, he cited a poll showing more than half of New Hampshire residents support some type of decriminalization.
“We never like to legislate based on poll results, but it sure makes it easier when we can at last say that public opinion is on the side of legalization, and more so all the time,” he wrote.
Vaillancourt also wrote that most law enforcement officials who testified Thursday disagree with the proposals. The New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police spoke against all three of the decriminalization bills, and the medical marijuana proposal.
“I still believe that it still kills brain cells. . . and we still believe that the use of marijuana is a gateway drug to more harsh drugs, cocaine and heroin and other stuff on the market,” said David Cahill, chief of the Sunapee Police Department and legislative representative for the chiefs’ association.
“I don’t think there’s any one of us who wouldn’t say it probably helps people feel better and deal with pain, but it’s not curing cancer, it’s not curing arthritis, it’s not curing any other disabilities. . . . We would support anything the FDA did case studies on and has findings that say it’s good, it works, let’s do it,” he said. “That hasn’t happened and there’s reasons for that.”
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)