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Medical marijuana now legal in N.H., but rule-writing means delay for patients, dispensaries

Maggie Hassan, Democratic candidate for governor, held a town hall at Havenwood-Heritage Heights in Concord on July 6, 2012.

(John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

Maggie Hassan, Democratic candidate for governor, held a town hall at Havenwood-Heritage Heights in Concord on July 6, 2012. (John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

Medical marijuana is now legal in New Hampshire, but patients with serious or terminal diseases will have to wait awhile longer before they can use marijuana to ease their pain and other symptoms without fear of arrest.

A bill allowing “the use of cannabis for therapeutic purposes” passed the Legislature with broad bipartisan support and was signed into law last month by Gov. Maggie Hassan. But the Department of Health and Human Services still has to draft administrative rules and regulations for the program.

Officials have 18 months, or until January 2015, to write rules governing the dispensaries, or “alternative treatment centers,” that will grow marijuana and sell it to patients. Rules for the registry program – which will allow patients to obtain a special identification card – must be ready by July 2014.

“I hope they can do that sooner than that, because that’s the only way patients can have any kind of legal protection,” said Matt Simon, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project.

With a registry card, a patient or a designated caregiver can legally possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana. Without one, a patient can be arrested and prosecuted under New Hampshire’s drug laws, even if he or she has cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis or one of the new law’s other qualifying conditions.

Michael Holt, the rules coordinator at HHS, said people shouldn’t expect a rush job on the rules.

“This is a brand new program for the department,” he said. “If we get them done sooner, that would be a great success, but I suspect it will take us the full year to get this program up and running.”

In the meantime, it’s likely some lawmakers will seek to expand the medical marijuana program by filing bills for next year. Allowing patients to grow their own marijuana and including post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition were both proposed this year; due to opposition from Hassan, neither made it into the final bill.

But even supporters aren’t optimistic they can overcome Hassan’s opposition on those fronts.

“Unless she changes some aspect of her position, it would take a two-thirds vote in the Senate to override her,” Simon said. “And given the dynamics of the Senate, that would be a hard thing to do.”

Siting dispensaries

New Hampshire has one big advantage in writing its rules, officials said last week: it’s the 19th state to legalize medical marijuana.

“A lot of other states now have implemented this, so there’s somewhere to look for direction,” said Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican. “We don’t have to invent the wheel. We just have to pick out the segments of the wheel that already exist to do what we want to do.”

Once drafted, the rules will go before the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, of which Reagan is chairman, for final approval.

As for dispensaries, 12 other states plus the District of Columbia use them to supply patients and their caregivers with marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Under New Hampshire’s law, up to four are allowed, all to be run as nonprofits.

The law requires that HHS, “to the greatest extent practicable, ensure that alternative treatment centers are geographically located so as to best serve the needs of qualifying patients.” Simon said the experience in other states, including Maine, has been that some cities and towns object to having dispensaries in town.

But, he said, that’s probably not going to be a huge problem.

“I think there are enough towns in New Hampshire that some of them are going to be welcoming to this, and it’s going to be an ongoing process to see where dispensaries are going to be most welcome,” he said.

For some communities, medical marijuana could provide a boost to the local economy.

“Even though it’s a nonprofit, they hire people. People have to work there,” said Pat Garvin, economic development coordinator at the North Country Council in Bethlehem.

One possible location, she said, is in the village of Groveton, which is part of the town of Northumberland. She said one redevelopment concept for an old mill there would involve “controlled environment agriculture,” which could include growing marijuana that would then be sold at the four dispensaries across the state.

“That’s what we’re looking at in terms of this bigger project, where this is one potential crop,” Garvin said.

In Concord, Zoning Administrator Craig Walker said he wasn’t sure how city officials would handle a proposal to open a growing facility and/or dispensary – “a new and different creature,” as he described it.

“We don’t know how we’re going to approach it yet,” he said. “Obviously it’s very new.”

And there are still questions that have to be answered. For example, the law says records identifying the location of a dispensary “shall be considered to be confidential information,” though the address can be given to registered patients and local law-enforcement agencies. But in Concord and other communities, many construction or renovation projects require a public hearing before local zoning and planning boards.

“That is a curious issue,” Walker said.

Oversight and changes

The new law also created a committee, the Therapeutic Use of Cannabis Advisory Council, to oversee the program.

“When we did the committee of conference, I pretty much had to give in on the home grow and the PTSD out of concern about a veto,” said Rep. Jim MacKay, a Concord Democrat and chairman of the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee. “But in doing that, I said the Senate had to join with us to make it a priority to get this committee started, and they agreed with us.”

It will hold its first meeting in the coming weeks, and MacKay – who’s already been appointed to the council – said it will help shape the rules for the new program.

The council can also recommend changes to the law itself. Not every supporter was happy with the final version signed into law July 23 by Hassan – the House’s version, which passed by a veto-proof 286-64 margin, had included PTSD as a qualifying condition and allowed patients to grow their own marijuana.

Advocates like Simon and Reagan say the home-grow option was important because it would be cheaper for patients to grow their own marijuana than to buy it, and because the new dispensaries won’t be open for a while.

“I’m pretty darn sure there will be a bill introduced next year that will address home grow,” Simon said, as well as a bill to add PTSD “and possibly other conditions” to the list.

But Hassan hasn’t given any signal she’s softened her opposition to home grow.

“The governor continues to share the concerns of law enforcement about the state’s ability to effectively regulate a home grow option and believes the dispensary approach is the right way to allow for the use of medical marijuana with oversight measures to prevent abuse,” said spokesman Marc Goldberg in a statement.

MacKay said it might be better to wait and see how the program comes together over the next year and a half or so, before making changes.

“Obviously, I can’t stop people from putting legislation in,” he said. “But at this point, it seems to me it would be wiser to get the thing up and running and then see, ‘What are the problems?’ ”

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

Legacy Comments1

Please don't let bureaucracy slow the progress of helping people. Being the 19th state to participate gives NH the chance to see what the other states have done and follow their lead. Don't spend another year reinventing the wheel. http://www.stonernation.com

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