Campaign to legalize marijuana launched by top N.H. Democrat in state Senate

  • Sen. Jeff Woodburn speaks with other Democratic senators in the Senate chamber on Thursday, April 17, 2014. Monitor file

  • Marijuana in its different forms.

For the Monitor
Published: 7/4/2018 10:46:18 PM

The top Democrat in New Hampshire’s Senate is kicking off a campaign to have the Granite State join its neighbors in legalizing recreational marijuana.

“We’re in the business of listening to what the people want, and we need to get our heads out of the sand and recognize reality that all of our neighbors are moving towards,” state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn told the Monitor.

The North Country Democrat launched an online petition Sunday, as a new law in Vermont went into effect allowing adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow two adult and four immature marijuana plants per household.

Voters in Massachusetts and Maine approved legalizing recreational marijuana in 2016. And come October, New Hampshire will be totally surrounded, as a new law makes Canada the second nation to legalize marijuana.

“We have a tremendous amount of evidence by looking at our neighbors and we can build a truly ‘New Hampshire’ system to bring legalization in line with the rest of the region,” Woodburn said.

Woodburn’s goal is to deliver 5,000 signatures in support of marijuana legalization to Gov. Chris Sununu on Aug. 1. And he said he hopes to have 10,000 signatures by October, when Canadian legalization goes into effect.

“We need our government to listen to us,” Woodburn said. “The effort here is to try to deliver as many petitions as possible to the governor.”

Sununu, the state’s first Republican governor in a dozen years, last year signed into law a measure that decriminalized small amounts of marijuana possession. That move had been opposed by his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Maggie Hassan, who’s now the state’s junior U.S. senator.

But Sununu does not support marijuana legalization.

“Are you kidding? We’re in the middle of one of the biggest drug crises the state has ever seen,” the governor said earlier this year in an interview with the Monitor and WKXL radio in Concord.

“To go to full recreational marijuana when other states are seeing all the problems it has in other states, the issues it’s bearing – it’s definitely not something that I’m supportive of right now,” he said.

And last week Sununu’s drug czar also went on the record with his opposition.

“At this time where we are struggling to get help with addiction, it is not a good time to be legalizing marijuana and introducing our children to another drug,” David Mara, the governor’s addiction and behavioral health adviser, said at an event at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

The state House of Representatives voted in March to sidetrack a bill that would have legalized small amounts of marijuana, even though the same legislation had gained the House’s support earlier in the year. The governor promised a veto if the measure had reached his desk.

Last month, the New Hampshire Democratic Party approved a platform that includes a plank supporting the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana.

Woodburn said that, if re-elected in November, he’ll introduce a new bill in next year’s legislative session.

“I view it similar to marriage equality. You have to get over that speed bump of resistance. The evidence around us is going to be clear and compelling,” Woodburn said.

And he predicted that “as people live with it, they’re going to be more comfortable with some of those old myths and notions falling by the wayside.”

State Rep. Renny Cushing, who has long championed legalizing recreational marijuana, recently told the Monitor, “It’s inevitable.”

“July 1 we’re going to see sales of recreational marijuana for adults in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and I’m pretty sure the sky’s not going to fall on Massachusetts. It’s not going to fall on Maine. It’s not going to fall on Vermont,” the Hampton Democrat said. “New Hampshire will end up getting in step with our neighboring states in legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana.”

But not all Democrats are on board.

House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff of Concord opposed the party’s plank for marijuana legalization.

“If the vote was today, I would probably be voting ‘no’ simply because there is a legislative commission that’s meeting to look at the impact of legalization on the state of New Hampshire,” Shurtleff said.

That commission has met numerous times and is expected to issue its report at the beginning of November.

“As a courtesy to those serving on the commission, I would wait until they finish their work and issue their report,” Shurtleff said.

A University of New Hampshire Granite State Poll conducted in February indicated 56 percent support for legalization, with 25 percent opposed. And the poll indicated that the issue cuts across party lines.

“What’s really interesting is that the support’s really bipartisan,” UNH pollster Andrew Smith said of the results.

Sixty-one percent of Democrats, 56 percent of independents and 49 percent of Republicans backed marijuana legalization, according to the survey.

But Smith noted that the topic is “not near the top of people’s most important issues.

“It’s not something that they have grave concern about,” he said.

Woodburn said marijuana legalization won’t be a top issue as the Democrats try to win the majority back in the state Legislature this November.

“I think it’s a good sub-issue. The bread-and-butter economic issues are, I think, what drives the political debate,” he said.

He also highlighted the “tremendous economic opportunity” in regulating and taxing legalized marijuana, and he used that as a counter to Sununu’s argument about the drug crisis.

“This money could be used to fight the opioid epidemic,” he said.

Woodburn hopes the governor will get on board.

“I do believe this is an issue that crosses all political divides,” Woodburn said. “Governor Sununu has put himself in front of this cause to continue the prohibition of marijuana, and I wish he was more open to it.”

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