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N.H. Senate panel removes home-grow option from medical marijuana bill

A Senate committee yesterday endorsed medical marijuana legislation that passed the House earlier this year, but removed a provision opposed by Gov. Maggie Hassan that would have allowed patients to grow their own cannabis.

Sen. Nancy Stiles, a Hampton Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education and Human Services Committee, said she met Monday with Hassan’s legal counsel, Lucy Hodder, and eliminated elements of the bill Hassan won’t support.

“I think the important thing in this process is to get legislation moved forward so that we can begin to help our citizens that are critically ill, and start out with a small process that can be expanded later on if we find that it’s not meeting all of the needs,” Stiles said.

After an hour of discussion, the committee voted, 5-0, to recommend the full Senate pass the amended bill, which would allow seriously ill or terminal patients with cancer and other specified conditions to acquire marijuana from special dispensaries to treat symptoms including pain and weight loss.

The bill next heads to the Senate floor for a vote.

Medical marijuana advocates are unhappy with the removal of the home-grow option. Matt Simon, a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, said dispensaries could take at least two years to get up and running, and New Hampshire patients in the meantime would be left without a legal option to acquire marijuana.

Simon said supporters are open to some sort of compromise, such as attaching a “sunset” clause to a home-grow option that would repeal it after three years.

“That is the sticking point, politically, in this bill,” Simon said. “Let’s let patients grow their own for two or three years while dispensaries can get up and running.”

But Rep. Donna Schlachman, an Exeter Democrat and the legislation’s prime sponsor, said supporters don’t want to scuttle the bill even if they don’t like everything in the final version.

“We know we’re going to pass something,” she told reporters following the committee’s vote yesterday. “Right now, our biggest concern is whether we’re passing something that meets the needs of patients immediately who . . . have been waiting a long time for legal access to something that is critically important to their health and well-being, given the medical challenges that they face.”

Hassan’s spokesman, Marc Goldberg, said the Senate committee’s changes “represent significant improvements and help address the governor’s concerns” about the bill as it was approved March 20 by the House on a 286-64 vote.

He didn’t rule out additional changes.

“Gov. Hassan looks forward to continuing the dialogue with legislators and all stakeholders as the legislation moves forward, and she is always willing to listen to constructive ideas, while keeping in mind the goal of appropriately regulated use of medical marijuana with controlled dispensing,” Goldberg said.

Bill tightened

The Senate committee yesterday made a number of changes to the bill, in addition to eliminating the home-grow option. Among other things, the panel:

∎ Eliminated post-traumatic stress disorder from the list of conditions making a patient eligible for marijuana use.

∎ Added a requirement that patients get written permission from a property owner before using marijuana on privately owned land.

∎ Reduced the maximum number of marijuana dispensaries, called “alternative treatment centers,” from five to four.

∎ Required the alternative treatment centers to obtain liability insurance.

∎ Limited the bill’s provision for an “affirmative defense” in court against marijuana-related charges to patients with a valid state-issued registry card or their card-issued designated caregivers.

“This is very tight and very regulated,” said Sen. Molly Kelly, a Keene Democrat.

Assuming the bill passes the Senate in its current form, Schlachman said negotiators from the House and Senate will hammer out a final version in a committee of conference.

“We will definitely provide something that the governor can support,” she said.

Medical marijuana bills have passed the Legislature twice in the last four years, but both times were vetoed by then-Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat.

By contrast, Hassan, also a Democrat, supports enacting a medical marijuana law in New Hampshire.

“I want to emphasize how grateful I am to have a governor who has gone on record in support of the use of therapeutic cannabis. I think that’s critically important,” Schlachman said.

Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of marijuana since 1996, including the other five New England states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or
bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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