Senate committee votes to delay marijuana legalization bill to 2020

Monitor staff
Published: 5/14/2019 6:25:24 PM

A New Hampshire state Senate committee recommended the Senate put off action on marijuana legalization until 2020, in a blow to a legalization effort that has sputtered in recent weeks.

Voting 5-0, members of the Judiciary Committee recommended the bill, House Bill 481, be “re-referred” back to the committee by the Senate for further study rather than given an up or down vote on the Senate floor. Doing so would effectively allow the committee to work on the bill until Dec. 19, when the committee would have to send its final version to the Senate floor. The full Senate would then be charged with taking a vote no later than the end of January.

The committee recommendation to re-refer, which must be approved by the whole Senate to take effect, came as both pro- and anti-legalization senators agreed the committee needed time to keep working on the bill. And it followed a wave of State House opposition in recent weeks that has seen critics pour into hearing rooms and vote counts in the House drop.

House Bill 481 would legalize the purchase, consumption, sale and growth of cannabis in New Hampshire for those over 21, and impose a regulatory and tax structure on all sales. The bill, which would allow up to six plants to be grown in a home and set up a licensing structure for retail sales, has been hailed by advocates as a civil-rights necessity as well as a potential revenue boon.

But after initial momentum earlier in the year, the measure has faced increasingly long odds, particularly in the face of Gov. Chris Sununu’s vow in December to veto the bill “regardless of what the language looks like.” Two votes in the House this year have come up short of the two-thirds necessary majority.

After Tuesday’s vote, opinions among senators varied.

For Sen. Sharon Carson, a Judiciary Committee member and legalization opponent, the issue was simple: The bill wasn’t ready. “I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before we even begin to consider legalizing marijuana,” she said.

Carson said more needed to be done to reign in advertising for children, and to find technology that could allow for useful road testing for law enforcement. But the bill also faced weighty obstacles that might not be easily resolved, she argued.

“I think for me the biggest issue is the federal side,” she said. “New Hampshire is legalizing something that is federally illegal.”

Meanwhile, some legalization supporters slammed the move. Informed of the vote by the Monitor, Sen. John Reagan, a staunch advocate who doesn’t sit on the Judiciary Committee, barely hid his frustration, pointing to recent efforts by Sen. Bob Giuda to warn other senators of potential health risks in the run-up to a decision.

“Giuda’s got them all worked up over this Alex Berenson book and Alex Berenson is a crackpot,” he said, referring to an effort by the Warren senator to distribute copies of a recent book by Barenson critical of marijuana: Tell Your Children.

That book, a chronicle by a former journalist of potential upticks in crime and health problems associated with marijuana, has earned critical acclaim but also controversy; recently, 75 medical professionals and academics signed a letter calling it hyperbolic and alarmist.

Reagan had similar issues. “It’s a crackpot book. It’s based on fake science,” he said. “It’s like: Every time we get a crackpot, we’re going to change policy?”

Reagan added that he would oppose the measure on the floor, but wasn’t sure of its odds of success. Giuda was not immediately available to comment.

Others in favor of legalization were more open to delay. Some said that a recent onslaught of testimony by opponents of the bill convinced them that more time was needed to work out kinks.

“I do support the legalization, however, we heard a lot of concerns throughout he testimony, so I felt there was some areas that we either need to tighten up or make it more apparent that we’re doing things like protecting children,” said Sen. Melanie Levesque, a member of the committee. The Brookline Democrat pointed to the need for increased regulation over advertising to children, regulation of the packaging for edible products, and figuring out a clear process for how municipalities could approve retail sales.

“A lot of that is in the bill, but maybe it’s not articulated well enough,” she said.

Still, others saw a strategic benefit. Sen. Harold French, a member the Judiciary Committee and a strong supporter of marijuana, said that pushing the bill off for a few months could be a boon to legalization advocates in the long-term, allowing them to regroup support in the House to overcome a veto.

One factor that could influence that, he argued: changes at the federal level. If the Department of Justice or Congress acts in coming months to allow states more leeway, more lawmakers might jump on board, French argued.

Either way, with an organized opposition and fading momentum, Tuesday’s proposed delay could be what the effort needs, the Franklin Republican said.

“It kind of kept it alive, that’s what it did,” French said.

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