Legislation to decriminalize 1 ounce of marijuana in N.H. returns

Last modified: 2/18/2015 6:16:48 PM
Marijuana decriminalization is back on the table in New Hampshire – and still provoking strong reaction from both sides, even though this is just the latest in a long line of debates over the issue in the last decade.

The newest decriminalization bill would lessen the severity of penalties for several categories of marijuana and hashish possession. Having an ounce or less of marijuana would become a violation instead of a Class A misdemeanor, which now carries the possible maximum penalty of a $2,000 fine and one year in jail.

Adults who are found with 1 ounce or less of marijuana would face a $100 fine under the new bill, and anyone who is under 21 years old would face the possibility of having their driver’s license revoked for up to one year on the first offense.

Teens who are found with 1 ounce or less of marijuana would face parental notification, along with the possibility of up to 35 hours of community service and participation in a substance abuse education program.

More than 40 people showed up for a hearing on the bill yesterday, though not all of them testified.

Supporters of the bill argued the state’s marijuana penalties are too harsh on first-time offenders – opening teens up to the possibility of penalties that would threaten their eligibility for financial aid, for example – and disproportionately harm low-income people who do not have the time or resources to fight the charges.

Jonathan Cohen, an attorney in Concord and former public defender, said he frequently has to counsel families who are “full of dread” about the long-term implications of their child’s marijuana offense.

“It’s me who is the witness to this fear. I have to sit there and be the bearer of this news, I have to see the fear on this person’s face, on their parents’ face,” Cohen said. “I don’t see this when I have the person in my office with their parents in the same situation who is accused of possessing alcohol.”

Others from the Department of Safety, the Department of Justice and the substance abuse advocacy organization New Futures opposed the bill, warning that marijuana is not as safe as it seems and that penalties are needed to deter young people, especially, from trying the substance.

Two Dover High School students who are members of a youth action program to combat drug and alcohol use, Sarah Daniels and Jordan Schneider, also testified against the bill. They said their peers are using marijuana at an “alarming rate,” citing a 2013 school survey in which 26 percent of Dover students reported using marijuana in the previous month, and echoed others’ concerns about the message decriminalization would send to kids.

“What is stated in the law is sometimes the only thing a teenager will listen to before making a risky decision,” Daniels said.

New Hampshire state representatives have introduced at least nine decriminalization bills in the last decade. Some of the earlier attempts never made it past the legislative committee, but the state House has passed marijuana decriminalization bills in several recent sessions. None of those bills, however, has made it past the Senate.

Still, supporters are optimistic that this time could be different.

“It’s been an ongoing attempt to educate the members of the Senate, and I think a number of them are ready to have this discussion,” Matt Simon, New England director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said at a press conference yesterday afternoon. “I think they know that people are ready to have this discussion.”

Even if the bill clears the Senate, there’s another obstacle: avoiding a veto from Gov. Maggie Hassan. Spokesman William Hinkle said the governor opposes the proposed decriminalization bill but does not think someone should face a jail sentence for a first-time offense.

“The Governor does believe that there are other avenues that can and should be looked at to encourage alternative sentencing options that will focus on treatment first – including drug courts, diversion and treatment programs, and giving more flexibility to prosecutors and judges,” Hinkle said in an email.

While running for re-election last fall, Hassan said she opposed full legalization of marijuana but would be open to revisiting the state’s criminal penalties surrounding marijuana.

New Hampshire is one of a dozen states where decriminalization measures are up for discussion this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Penalties for possession of small portions of marijuana have been reduced in 19 states and the District of Columbia, according to the NCSL. New Hampshire is the only state in New England that hasn’t taken some step toward lightening penalties for marijuana possession.

An October poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found that 19 percent of respondents favored decriminalizing marijuana, while 52 percent wanted the state to legalize and tax the substance. Another 27 percent of respondents said they wanted to maintain the state’s existing marijuana policies and the remaining 2 percent were not sure what approach they preferred.

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)

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