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Senate tables proposal to decriminalize marijuana

Last modified: 6/6/2015 1:35:00 AM
A plan to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana went down in the Senate yesterday after a long debate.

The New Hampshire House has passed several bills in recent sessions that lessen the penalties for pot possession. But none of those bills has ever made it past the Senate.

Despite a bipartisan push from some senators, the chamber was unable to agree on a final bill. The Senate ultimately tabled a proposal that would have decriminalized up to a quarter-ounce of marijuana by reducing the penalty to a violation carrying a fine of $300 for a first-time offense.

The Senate language watered down a bill passed by the House earlier this year to make possession of a half-ounce or less a violation offense with a $100 fine.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana, making possession of small amounts of pot an infraction or a low level misdemeanor as opposed to a state crime, according to the National Conference for State Legislatures.

New Hampshire is the only state in New England that has not lessened the penalties for marijuana possession. Under current state law, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana can result in three years imprisonment and a $25,000 fine.

Supporters argue New Hampshire’s marijuana penalties are too harsh on first-time offenders. They say the law can unfairly target low-income people who don’t have resources to fight the charges or jeopardize teens’ ability to get financial aid for college.

“A young persons’ life could be changed, altered and marred forever,” said Sen. David Pierce, a Lebanon Democrat.

But opponents say marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to use of harder substances.

Sixty-three percent of New Hampshire residents favor marijuana decriminalization, according to a recently released Granite State Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

Decriminalizing marijuana is not the same as legalizing it. The House killed a bill 192-140 making the substance legal earlier this year.

But some argued that decriminalizing the substance would pave the way to fewer restrictions in the future.

“The next step is legalization,” said Sen. David Boutin, a Hooksett Republican. “Then what are you going to do? Why don’t we just take the last step like the lemmings did over the cliff?”

New Hampshire has already legalized the use of medical marijuana. While the law is currently in effect, patients who qualify to use marijuana cannot yet access the substance. The state is still in the process of licensing up to four alternative treatment centers, which will be the only facilities designated to distribute medical marijuana.

Work to continue 
on tax code change

Lawmakers will continue working on a change to the state’s tax code meant in large part to keep Planet Fitness headquartered in New Hampshire.

The Senate signed off on a bill along party lines to amend the state’s business profits tax. One of the state’s largest money-makers, the tax brought in about $330 million last year.

Planet Fitness officials came before senators last week threatening to move headquarters and about 200 jobs from Newington unless the state makes a change to its tax code that could prove favorable once the company goes public.

Democrats argued the change could make the state’s tax system unfair.

“Carving out tax breaks for a single business at the last minute with no transparency is not the way to re-write tax law and can lead to harmful, unintended consequences for the people of New Hampshire,” Concord Sen. Dan Feltes said in a statement.

But Republicans say the state needs to be able to respond quickly to economic issues and keep business in-state. The Senate Ways and Means Committee will meet today to work on the legislation.

“The Senate has worked hard this session to address problems that could hurt jobs in New Hampshire,” Senate President Chuck Morse, a Salem Republican, said in a statement. The “vote shows that we are willing to work together to find solutions when it comes to legislation that is critical to keeping jobs in our state, growing new jobs, and supporting small businesses.”

Overdose immunity 
bill okayed

Senators approved a bill that gives people who report an overdose immunity from criminal prosecution in specific cases.

A record 325 people died of drug overdoses in New Hampshire last year.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this crisis,” said Sen. Molly Kelly, a Keene Democrat. “What we do have is a public health issue.”

The bill aims to encourage people to get medical help for those who overdose. It protects people who report an overdose from being charged with possession of illegal drugs.

The legislation still allows the police to seize evidence and detain people involved in a criminal investigation. The law would expire in 2018 unless lawmakers vote to reauthorize it.

“Let’s all hope that in three years we have solved this epidemic,” Kelly said.

The so-called “good Samaritan” bill is one of many lawmakers have considered this session in an effort to curb the number of deaths. Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a bill into law this week that expands public access to naloxone. Known by its brand name Narcan, it reverses the deadly effects of heroin and opiate overdoses.

Nod given to bill to increase energy-efficiency investments

The Senate voted 13-11 to send a larger portion of the state’s auction proceeds from a regional cap-and-trade program to energy-efficiency programs available to residents, municipalities and school districts.

The House voted earlier this year to send all of the state’s auction proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative back to ratepayers. Currently, earnings from the RGGI auctions are invested in energy-efficiency programs and rebated to ratepayers.

The Senate bill increases investments in residential energy-efficiency programs, including low-income weatherization and efficiency upgrades for municipalities and school districts. A portion of proceeds would still be rebated to commercial and industrial electric customers under the bill.

New Hampshire is one of nine member states in the Northeast that participates in RGGI, aimed at curbing carbon emissions. Under the regional pact, fossil fuel-burning power plants purchase allowances for every ton of carbon dioxide that they emit. The emissions cap, set at 91 million tons in 2014, is set to drop by 2.5 percent annually until 2020.


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