Law enforcement resisting pot bill

Last modified: 4/29/2012 12:00:00 AM
New Hampshire could be three Senate votes away from legalizing marijuana for medicinal use, but the state's law enforcement community is putting up a barrier that could prevent the effort from becoming law.

Last week, the bill won a veto-proof majority in the House, but medical marijuana proponents need three more Senate votes to overcome a veto from Gov. John Lynch, whose opposition to the bill puts him in line with police and law enforcement officials.

The Democratic governor has traditionally backed positions supported by the law enforcement community, opposing expanded gambling, a broadening of the right to use deadly force and the ability to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

He vetoed a similar medical marijuana bill in 2009 and promised last week to do the same with the current version. Asked to what degree the law enforcement community's position had influenced his opinion, Lynch spokesman Jamie Richardson said only that 'law enforcement concerns about proliferation and distribution were considered by the governor.'

Lynch's legal counsel, Jeff Meyers, 'definitely cited law enforcement opposition' when explaining the governor's intention to veto the bill, said state Sen. Jim Forsythe, the bill's sponsor.

'They are the last thing standing in the way,' said Forsythe, a Strafford Republican.

And they aren't yielding. While medical marijuana advocates say the bill before the Legislature has been tightened to address concerns about distribution, the changes haven't satisfied law enforcement officials opposed to any measure to legalize marijuana - medical or otherwise.

'The problem with it overall is it's a bad bill, and the only way to make it better is to take marijuana out of it,' said Enfield police Chief Richard Crate, a vice president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.

Proponents who point to the bill's tightened language 'are being very naive to the criminal element out there and the people who are going to take advantage of that,' Crate said.

Despite the medical rationale for the bill, the police chiefs are skeptical of the reasons for passing it, Crate said.

'We also feel very strongly this is just a ruse to legalize marijuana,' he said.

Forsythe said his staff has been calling police chiefs across the state to hear and discuss their concerns. Some chiefs have expressed support, but not publicly, Forsythe said, and advocates for the bill say they don't believe the entire law enforcement community is opposed.

Forsythe's efforts, however, are focused on swaying fellow senators, who voted 13-11 in favor of the bill last month. To override Lynch, three of the opponents must change their minds.

Several senators reached by phone Friday said they likely wouldn't switch their votes.

'I've always voted that way because law enforcement opposed this issue,' said Sen. Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican who voted against the bill. 'I don't agree with law enforcement on everything. . . . To me, they're standing on principle on this issue, and I'm standing with them.'

A 'gateway drug'

Police chiefs and officers said they oppose the medical marijuana bill because they don't want to increase access to what they say is a 'gateway drug.'

'Legalizing marijuana only leads to more gateways for people to get more involved in more serious drugs, and marijuana is serious enough as it is,' said Laconia police Detective Jeff Stiegler, president of the New Hampshire Police Association.

Stiegler, who has been a police officer for 25 years and used to serve on the attorney general's drug task force, said marijuana is often involved in harder drug cases. He can't remember arresting a person for heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine who didn't also have marijuana, he said.

Legalizing medical marijuana also creates a perception the drug is safe, which sends the wrong message to teenagers, Crate said.

'We're in a situation now where alcohol and tobacco use among teenagers is on the decline, yet marijuana is a huge problem' with teens, Crate said.

He cited a study that found marijuana use among teenagers was higher in states with medical marijuana laws - there are 16 and the District of Columbia. Other studies cited by medical marijuana advocates show that teenage marijuana use has declined since the 1990s in states that have medical marijuana laws.

In addition to concerns about access and perception, law enforcement officials said they foresee difficulties in prosecuting abuses of the medical marijuana law.

'Once you create an exception to the law, it generally puts the state in a position of having to disprove the exception,' said Merrimack County Attorney Scott Murray.

Prescription drug cases pose challenges to prosecutors, who have to determine whether a defendant has a valid prescription, Murray said.

'If you have a lot of people relying on the fact they use marijuana for medical use, it creates a hurdle that can be imposed by defendants,' Murray said.

Legalizing medical marijuana would create situations in which police officers would have trouble making arrests, Crate said. He gave the example of an officer going to a house where several people have been smoking marijuana, but one has a prescription.

'All the person has to do is pass the pipe to the patient,' Crate said. 'You can have five people all sitting there high and there's nothing we can do, about it.'

Even though using marijuana for medical purposes isn't legal, people who have done so - and testified to its benefits - haven't been arrested in New Hampshire, Crate said.

'Law enforcement isn't going to people who are dying and suffering and arresting people because they're using marijuana,' he said. The bill is 'looking for a potential solution when there's not a problem out there.'

If the police acknowledge people are using marijuana for medical reasons, then there should be a law allowing the state's residents to use it for that purpose, Forsythe said.

'Why not put a framework in place to make sure they understand who the patient is?' Forsythe said.

Concerns dismissed

Forsythe dismisses many of the concerns the police have about enforcing the medical marijuana bill. The chiefs contacted by his staff cited driving under the influence as their biggest concern, but the bill bars that, he said.

'There's no difference from the current law,' he said.

Other provisions of the bill, which has been repeatedly revised, guard against the concerns raised by the law enforcement community, Forsythe said. The bill, which would allow patients diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition to cultivate up to six ounces of marijuana, no longer allows for distribution centers, a plan that officials said would place state employees in violation of federal law.

The bill requires that patients obtain a registry identification card, which police officers would be able to verify through a database available 24 hours a day, Forysthe said.

It also requires patients to see a medical provider for three months before they receive an opinion that using marijuana would benefit their condition, strips post-traumatic stress disorder from the list of qualifying conditions and sets an extra felony charge for patients who sell their marijuana. Caregivers wouldn't be allowed to sell marijuana and could only charge patients for their labor.

Forsythe said he wishes law enforcement would work with him on the bill to put in additional provisions that would address their concerns. But he maintains the bill would not have the impact its opponents suggest.

'I think what's happened in a lot of states, law enforcement was against it, it got enacted and they realized it wasn't such a catastrophe,' Forysthe said.

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or

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