Marijuana decriminalization effort defeated in Senate

  • Customers buy products at the Harvest Medical Marijuana Dispensary in San Francisco on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. In what may be the last year pot is illegal in California, thousands of people are expected to converge on San Francisco's Golden Gate Park Wednesday for the annual 4/20 marijuana holiday. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

Monitor staff
Published: 4/21/2016 1:00:55 PM

The state Senate killed a bill Thursday to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana after opponents said it would send a confusing message as New Hampshire tries to fight a growing substance abuse problem.

“We are in a war,” said Sen. Gary Daniels, a Milford Republican. “The last thing we need is to tell our citizens that it’s okay to use a little marijuana or any other illegal substance.”

The day after advocates smoked marijuana on the State House steps, the bill was defeated in a 14-10 vote that did not divide along party lines. Ten Republicans and four Democrats voted to kill the legislation.

The proposal would have reduced the penalties for possessing up to a half-ounce of marijuana by making it a violation that carries a $100 fine on the first offense. It had already passed the Republican-led House.

Supporters of decriminalization said marijuana has beneficial qualities, and state resources used to arrest people for possession could be better spent elsewhere.

“We’re obsessed with punishing people because someone in the government in 1937 decided marijuana is bad,” said Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican.

Twenty states and Washington, D.C., have decriminalized marijuana, making possession of small amounts of the drug 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 its penalties. Under current state law, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor that can result in three years imprisonment and a $25,000 fine.

The Legislature is weighing a competing bill that would change the marijuana penalties. It would make pot possession an unspecified misdemeanor and increase the fine for a first-time offense from $350 to $500. The effort is meant to give courts more discretion, according to its sponsor, Republican Sen. Jeanie Forrester. The bill has already cleared the Senate, and it is now being considered by the House.

Lawmakers in New Hampshire have long weighed changes to pot penalties. While previous bills to decriminalize marijuana have cleared the House, none has passed the Senate.

New Hampshire did legalize the use of medical marijuana in 2013. The state has now licensed four alternative treatment centers to distribute the drug, but the centers have yet to open their doors.

Democratic Rep. Renny Cushing, one of the sponsors of the decriminalization bill, said he’s disappointed the proposal was defeated.

“It’s unfortunate we’re spending $6.5 million a year to prosecute people for marijuana, when we don’t have enough beds to treat people with addiction,” he said.

Other bills

The Senate also gave its stamp of approval to several other bills, including one that would prohibit bestiality and another that would let the Legislature enter into an agreement to open the State Hosue on certain Saturdays. Both bills need House approval.

The Senate also voted to repeal a penalty that the Liquor Commission will face if it doesn’t sell enough. Profits the commission generates by selling liquor and wine are funneled in the state’s coffers.

The current state budget requires the commission to cut expenditures if it falls short of sales expectations. As of March, the commission was nearly $2 million behind. The proposal would stop the cut and let the commission continue operating at the current level, even if revenue falls below expectations.

“It should be noted that the Liquor Commission is facing an increase in competition from large liquor stores on the Massachusetts border,” said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican. “We do not want the Liquor Commission to make cuts to staff.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307, or on Twitter @amorrisNH.)

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