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New Hampshire House passes marijuana legalization

Last modified: 1/16/2014 12:31:07 AM
The New Hampshire House voted yesterday to legalize marijuana.

The bill, which passed 170-162 after a long and lively debate, will now go to the House Ways and Means Committee. But it faces a tough road ahead; the bill must again pass the full House and then the Senate before it reaches Gov. Maggie Hassan’s desk.

Hassan, a Democrat who signed a medical marijuana bill into law last year, vowed to veto any marijuana legalization bill. The governor “does not support further efforts to legalize marijuana,” said her spokesman, Marc Goldberg.

The bill that passed the Democratic-controlled House yesterday would permit the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, authorize its cultivation and impose a tax on its sale.

“We must . . . abandon our reefer madness mentality which has plagued this country for so long,” said Rep. Steve Vaillancourt.

Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican and the bill’s prime sponsor, urged the House to become the first state to pass marijuana legalization through its legislature; voter referendums have legalized the drug in Colorado and Washington state. In a long speech before the House yesterday, Vaillancourt said public opinion about marijuana is changing, and New Hampshire should take advantage of the tax revenue that would come with its legalization and regulation.

Others said the laws in Colorado and Washington state are new, and New Hampshire should wait.

“Doesn’t it make sense to protect our children and wait awhile to see what actually happens in the states of Colorado and Washington?” asked Rep. William Butynski, a Hinsdale Democrat. “If this is legalized, I hope the people on the other side are correct, that it won’t cause a problem. But given my experience, both professionally and personally, I don’t think there’s a chance of that.”

Butynski, a retired substance abuse expert, raised concerns about the increasing potency of marijuana plants. He cited increases in car crashes and emergency room visits related to marijuana use. People under the influence of marijuana are twice as likely to become involved in motor vehicle accidents than those who are not using it, he said, citing New Hampshire Department of Safety statistics.

Under the bill approved yesterday, individuals 21 and older could purchase marijuana and grow up to six plants for personal use. Public smoking of marijuana would be prohibited. The state would tax manufacturing facilities and stores at a rate of $30 per ounce and institute a 15 percent sales tax on all marijuana sold.

The House Ways and Means Committee will address issues with regulation and taxation, Vaillancourt said.

Rep. Laurie Harding, a Democrat from Lebanon, said she supported the medical marijuana law that passed last year, and has supported efforts to decriminalize marijuana possession. Decriminalizing marijuana would keep the drug illegal, but would not charge individuals with a crime for possessing a small amount. Harding said legalizing the growth, distribution and possession of marijuana was too large a step for the House to take.

“We are being confronted with serious regulation issues,” Harding said. “The (Department of Revenue Administration) does not want to have to regulate legalized marijuana. In order to regulate appropriately, they’re going to have to write rules for cultivation facilities, for establishments. . . . It means they’ll have to write rules on production, on manufacturing facilities. They’ll have to write rules on retail stores and how retail stores will function, and on testing facilities as well.”

Several representatives who spoke against the bill yesterday said New Hampshire has one of the highest rates in the country of marijuana use by minors.

But Rep. Ruth Gage, a Goffstown Democrat, suggested that legalization would not change that rate, and that regulation could perhaps keep the drug away from underage users.

“Have our current policies been successful at keeping marijuana away from young people?” Gage asked. “The answer is clearly no.”

Yesterday’s vote to send the marijuana legalization bill to the House Ways and Means Committee came after more than two hours of debate and several close votes on the bill.

License plate scanners

In other action yesterday, the House voted against a bill that would have legalized automatic license plate scanners in New Hampshire.

The 214-135 vote indefinitely postponed the bill, so it cannot be brought up again this session. 

The bill would have allowed police officers to use automatic license plate scanners that collect data from passing cars and run them through a database of plates connected to crimes. 

Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican, said it would lead to a potentially dangerous amount of data collection by the government. That practice is “not consistent with New Hampshire values,” Kurk said.

“In a year when we’ve heard the (Edward) Snowden revelations about the National Security Administration collecting data . . . and storing them so that they can connect the dots at some future time . . . we have to ask ourselves whether we in New Hampshire want to go down that road of collecting metadata,” he said.

The bill would have required police to purge all information from their systems after three minutes. But some opponents worried that the police would not correctly purge the data, or would seek to extend the amount of time they could keep it.

Rep. Geoffrey Hirsch, a Bradford Democrat, said driving is a privilege in New Hampshire, and drivers already must register their license plates. 

“Implicit in that registration is an acknowledgement that those plates are there for public scrutiny, for identification and for recognition,” Hirsch said. “That’s part of the process. So how can there be an expectation of privacy about our license plates?”

Victims’ fund tabled

The House tabled a bill that would have established a fund to compensate fraud victims of Financial Resources Mortgage, the Lakes Region firm that collapsed in 2009.

The Senate passed the bill this spring, but the House voted to retain it. A motion to table the bill yesterday passed easily, 324-10, and without debate.

The House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee had no recommendation for the bill; its members disagreed on whether the state should take responsibility for failing to shut down FRM and for its decision to place the firm in bankruptcy.

FRM, which was based in Meredith, has been described as the largest Ponzi scheme in New Hampshire history. More than 250 investors lost about $33 million when it collapsed.

Skiing for seniors

Seniors can continue skiing for free at Cannon Mountain.

The House tabled a bill yesterday that would have ended free ski lift passes on weekdays to residents age 65 and older, a long-standing policy at the state-owned ski area.

The bill aimed to offer seniors free admission to state parks, but required them to pay for ski lifts and trams. Seniors would have still paid for admission to the Flume Gorge and the state’s other enterprise functions.

Rep. Brad Bailey, a Monroe Republican, spoke against the bill based on the change it would make to Cannon Mountain’s system. 

“Our state’s senior citizens see this not as a right, but a privilege afforded them as a thanks in retirement for the many years when they purchased lift tickets for themselves and their sons and daughters,” Bailey said.

The House voted, 190-150, to table the bill.

Protecting the unemployed

The House passed a bill prohibiting discrimination against the unemployed on a close vote, 179-170. 

Rep. Chuck Weed, a Keene Democrat, said the bill would prevent employers from turning down unemployed individuals based simply on their lack of a current job, and help people find work.

“We have a number of people who are long-term unemployed,” Weed said. 

Others said employers should be free to choose who they want to hire, and argued that discrimination against the unemployed is not a problem in New Hampshire.

The bill will now go to the Senate for consideration.

Title loan regulation

The House voted yesterday to cap interest rates on title loans.

Title loans use the loan recipient’s car as collateral, allowing the car to be repossessed if the loan is not repaid. Interest would be capped at 25 percent for the first month and 3 percent for every additional month a loan goes unpaid.

Rep. Kermit Williams, who proposed that interest limit on the House floor yesterday, said it is fair because title loans are meant to be repaid within one month.

“This amendment will give us some middle ground, letting the lender charge the current maximum for a truly short, one-month loan, while ensuring that longer term borrowers pay a more reasonable rate,” said Williams, a Wilton Democrat.

Rep. Ken Gidge, a Democrat from Nashua, said few borrowers have complaints about title loans. He asked the House to vote against the additional limit on interest rates, which are currently capped at 25 percent per month.

The bill passed, 212-129. It will now go before the Senate.

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)


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