N.H. House strongly defeats bill to legalize marijuana

Last modified: 3/27/2014 11:56:45 PM
The New Hampshire House voted against legalizing marijuana 192-140 yesterday, marking a significant shift after passing the bill by eight votes in January. After that vote, the bill went to the Ways and Means Committee, which recommended killing it after studying regulation and taxing aspects of the bill.

The Senate was nearly certain to block the bill, and Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan had promised to veto any bill legalizing marijuana. Hassan signed a medical marijuana bill last year, and last month the House passed a bill to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Opponents of legalization said the state should take small steps when it comes to marijuana. Hassan has already said she’s unlikely to sign a decriminalization bill.

“Good public policy means taking one step at a time,” said Rep. Donna Schlachman, an Exeter Democrat.

A certain death didn’t stop supporters from making a passionate case for legalizing the drug. Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican and the bill’s prime sponsor, spoke for 30 minutes about what he thinks are misconceptions about the drug and the revenue it could bring into New Hampshire. A February poll by the UNH Survey Center showed 53 percent of people support legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Legalizing, regulating and taxing the drug is the best way to ensure safe use, Vaillancourt said.

“This is the only way to break the back of the black market,” he said.

Rep. Romeo Danais, a Nottingham Republican, encouraged his colleagues to challenge their own misperceptions about the drug. Marijuana is not a gateway drug, he said, but people who buy it from drug dealers might be more easily exposed to harder drugs. Just as with alcohol, legalizing marijuana doesn’t mean people would be allowed to drive or show up to work under its influence, he said.

“Just because it’s legal does not mean that anyone would use it,” Danais said.

Danais and Vaillancourt both pointed to Colorado, which recently legalized marijuana by voter referendum, to show the possible tax revenue from legalization. Colorado’s governor estimated his state would see $100 million in tax revenue this year. In New Hampshire, some of the new revenue could go toward educating young people about marijuana use, Danais said. Creating a system of regulation would also create jobs, Vaillancourt said.

But opponents of the bill said no state agency testified in favor of legalizing marijuana during a public hearing. The system of regulation and taxation in the bill would have involved the departments of Revenue Administration, Safety, Health and Human Services, Agriculture and the Liquor Commission. The Liquor Commission said it wouldn’t sell marijuana in state liquor stores, said Rep. Patrick Abrami, a Stratham Republican.

Furthermore, opponents said selling marijuana would be a cash-only business because banks would not accept money from marijuana transactions. The bill also raised questions about people growing their own marijuana and making “edibles,” or marijuana baked into food. Several opponents said New Hampshire should see how legalization pans out in Colorado and Washington state before moving forward with a similar plan.

“I don’t think New Hampshire wants to be known as the ‘East Coast pot state,’ ” said Rep. Mary Cooney, a Plymouth Democrat.

The Senate has not yet scheduled a hearing for the House’s marijuana decriminalization bill.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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