Key members of House threaten to vote against cannabis bill after Senate changes

Julio Cortez/AP file photo

By ETHAN DeWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 05-21-2024 10:08 AM

Modified: 05-22-2024 10:41 AM


When the New Hampshire Senate began its lengthy deliberations over marijuana legalization Thursday, sunlight spilled through the chamber’s high windows. By the end, night had fallen. The result was a threshold moment: After hours of debates and amendments, the New Hampshire Senate voted for the first time to legalize the possession, sale, and taxation of cannabis.

But to reach that vote, the Senate made a number of significant changes to the House’s bill, House Bill 1633. Now, House lawmakers in both parties are voicing anger over the changes and indicating the House may kill the final bill entirely. 

“I already know of 50 Democrats who are going to nonconcur, and I think that’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Rep. Anita Burroughs, a Bartlett Democrat and key sponsor of the bill, in an interview Monday. 

The latest legalization effort is a year in the making, following Gov. Chris Sununu’s announcement last May that he was open to signing a cannabis bill that met certain criteria. And the bill still has a ways to go: It will be heard in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday and will receive a second vote by the full Senate on Thursday. At that point, if it passes, it will head back to the House, which can vote on its approval. 

Yet for stakeholders, advocates, lawmakers, and the governor, the final weeks of debate are more uncertain than ever. 

Public health advocates and the governor have welcomed the Senate’s bill, praising the amount of oversight it gives to the state over the cannabis products that would be sold, and its dedication of revenues to substance misuse efforts. Cannabis industry advocates have railed against it, arguing it would stifle the potential for a healthy market. And House lawmakers have expressed frustration that senators moved ahead with a final version they knew many representatives would oppose.

Like the House’s version, the Senate’s version of the bill would legalize the use of cannabis for people in New Hampshire 21 years and older, would allow a limited number of retail operations to exist in the state, and would let state officials tax and regulate the products sold at those retail operations.

But the Senate’s version asserts much more state control over how the products could be marketed or sold within those retail operations. The Senate bill would direct the Liquor Commission to grant licenses for up to 15 franchises in the state, and would empower the commission to control the layout, signage, and advertising of those locations. Those franchises would need to give 15 percent of profits back to the state, which would dedicate 30 percent to substance use treatment programs and give 6.6 percent back to the city or town that is hosting the outlet. 

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The Senate bill would require voters in a city or town to opt in to approve a retail cannabis outlet being established. And it would allow one single company or individual to buy up to three of the 15 total retail licenses distributed by the commission. 

Some public health advocates, like New Futures Vice President of Advocacy Kate Frey, have been encouraged by the Senate’s approach. 

New Futures generally opposes cannabis legalization and will not endorse the bill, Frey said. But the latest version of the legislation meets a number of minimum requirements that New Futures has set out for any cannabis bill: that it protects children, promotes social justice, protects public health, and includes funding to reduce harm. 

“Overall, the bill that came out of the Senate is the closest that we’ve seen of any piece of legislation to meeting most of our principles,” Frey said.

Sununu, too, has praised the approach of the latest bill, though he has not said whether he would sign it. “It’s a model which ensures that the retail sales are ultimately controlled by the state,” he said at a May 15 press conference. 

When he released a statement in May 2023 indicating his potential support for a cannabis legalization bill, the governor outlined a number of priorities, which included efforts to keep cannabis outlets away from schools; prohibit “marijuana miles,” or areas where cannabis stores are concentrated; and ensure state control. He reiterated this month that he would stick to those priorities. 

But Burroughs identified a number of Senate changes she says have soured House legalization supporters on the bill.

To start, the Senate bill gives the Liquor Commission broad enforcement powers over the entire statute, which Burroughs said would be “basically establishing another police force.” The bill’s franchise approach could squelch innovation among retail operations and dampen consumer interest, Burroughs argued. The bill would create a cannabis control commission, which would help craft the regulations that would apply to growers and sellers of cannabis, but Burroughs noted the Senate’s version would include sparse representation from the industry. And the Senate bill would also allow the retail stores to sell therapeutic cannabis, which could undercut the state’s existing alternative treatment centers, Burroughs said. 

Together, the changes represent too much of a departure from the House version for many members to stomach, Burroughs says. 

“I’ve been fighting for this for a lot of years, and I never imagined a day where I would vote against a bill that I’ve been sponsoring and working on,” she said. “But it’s like a bridge too far.”

The prime sponsor of the bill, Derry Republican Rep. Erica Layon, was not available to comment Monday. But another Republican sponsor of the bill, Rep. J.R. Hoell, says he’ll also be voting against it when it returns to the House. 

Hoell, of Dunbarnton, says he is not a fan of the state control approach, arguing that franchise model would create a near monopoly on cannabis sales.

And Hoell has other qualms. He doesn’t like that the bill prohibits the option for residents to grow their own cannabis at home. And he opposes the 15-license limit across the state, noting that because one business owner can have up to three licenses, the entire state’s cannabis market could be run by five different companies. 

“I voted against casinos for that same reason years ago,” Hoell said. “I think a free market does a better job of managing sales and cost distribution, and it solves problems that government can’t even anticipate. And this is definitely not a free-market model at this point.” 

The Senate may still make changes to the bill until midnight on Thursday. If the Senate passes the bill a second time on that day, the House will meet a week later to vote on whether to accept the changes. At that point, the 400-member chamber could choose to accept the changes and send the bill to Sununu, request a committee of conference to negotiate further, or reject the changes, killing the bill entirely.

The House’s version of the bill passed the chamber by 103 votes in April, 239-136. But Burroughs said that margin of support may be dissolving already.

Speaking to reporters, the governor pushed back at any opposition to the increased state control. “That’s not a concern, that’s an opportunity,” he said. He argued other states that have legalized retail cannabis without that kind of state oversight had ended with “frustrated local communities.”

“Just to be clear, if they said we’re just going to have the stores run by state employees like they are with the liquor store, that would be fine, too,” Sununu said, speaking of lawmakers. “So our franchise model is an alternative to that that is also acceptable, as long as all the other stipulations of control are put in.”

And some legalization advocates have urged the House to support the bill despite any perceived flaws.

“Signing marijuana legalization into law would ensure that our state stops arresting Granite Staters for marijuana possession – around a thousand per year, and who are disproportionately Black,” said Devon Chaffee, executive director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, in a statement. “This is not a perfect bill, but it remains critical to ensure this bill becomes law – and there are still many steps in the legislative process to come.” 

Tim Egan, an advisory board member of the New Hampshire Cannabis Association, a pro-cannabis industry group which has heavily criticized the Senate’s bill, has a similar view. 

“I want to see this bill get passed,” Egan said in an interview before the Senate’s May 16 vote. “Do I like most of the things in it? No.” he said. 

He later added: “Do I want this bill to fail? No. But if it does, I’m not going to cry about it.”