N.H. police talk marijuana enforcement on the border with legal-pot states


Monitor staff

Published: 07-04-2018 10:43 PM

Police Chief Andy Shagoury’s town of Tuftonboro is nestled on Lake Winnipesaukee and sits about 20 miles from New Hampshire’s border with Maine. Marijuana is legal in Maine, and the reality of people bringing the dried plant into the Granite State doesn’t sit well with the president of New Hampshire’s association of chiefs of police.

“This isn’t the marijuana of the ’80s. This is much stronger,” he said. “We need to make sure everyone realizes that it is not legal here in New Hampshire.”

Changing laws in Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine and Canada – all of which will have legalized marijuana by year’s end – have turned New Hampshire into a political and legal island. Advocates for legalization say it is only a matter of time until New Hampshire allows adults to use cannabis, which would make it the 10th state to legalize and the fourth in New England. The state’s Democratic party has now made it an official part of its platform. Gov. Chris Sununu has repeatedly said he will veto any attempt to legalize.

But as the legal marijuana market rapidly grows along New Hampshire’s borders, law enforcement officials from all over the state insist nothing has changed and they will enforce the laws on the books right now.

“We’re seeing some come over state lines now from other states with supposedly tightly regulated markets that is being distributed here,” Shagoury said.

Currently, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, and Canada do not have stores that sell cannabis for recreational use. Marijuana bought over state lines is still being carried illegally because a federally taxed and regulated market has not been created.

As New Hampshire law stands right now, three-fourths of an ounce or less of marijuana is decriminalized for people 18 and older. Anyone caught with three-fourths of an ounce or less will face a citation of $100 for the first two offenses. This fine rises to $300 on the third offense. Anything over that limit will result in a misdemeanor charge and potential jail time.

With New Hampshire’s relatively new decriminalization law, Shagoury said he has not seen a reduction in violations, but it has eased the burden on law enforcement to follow through on marijuana infractions.

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Rindge police Chief Daniel Anair said the decriminalization law has “been helpful in the fact that it’s not as time-consuming a process for the same end result.”

Rindge has also not seen a glaring change in the number of violations handed out, Anair said. But with a citation rather than potential jail time, decriminalization has streamlined the process for fining someone. Officers no longer have to arrest, process, jail and send samples to the state lab for testing.

But a simpler process for law enforcement doesn’t mean it’s easier for offenders. One convenience store in Rindge has a parking lot that sits on the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border. Anair said with visitors being confused about the changing laws, people who are stopped in that parking lot will often question how two paces can be the difference between receiving a citation and getting off scot-free.

With laws on both sides of the border that differ from federal law, Anair said it’s actually made people more honest with officers.

“I feel like they probably have less to lose, so the cooperation level with us is much higher,” he said. In the past, people would often deny any existence of marijuana on their person or in their vehicle. Now, Anair said, people just offer it up.

“It’s alleviated some of the red tape and some of the manpower, time constraints, so to speak, in dealing with marijuana violations,” he said.

Though he does not advocate legalization, Lebanon police Chief Richard Mello sits on the commission to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in New Hampshire. With his city straddling the Connecticut River on the Vermont border, he also sees the challenge of marijuana users navigating two sets of laws. Mello emphasized that visitors from Vermont need to understand the laws of the state they are entering.

Hinsdale borders the Vermont town of Brattleboro, home to one of the Green Mountain state’s four medical marijuana dispensaries. If Vermont moves forward in the future with a tax-and-regulate system, Brattleboro could become the hub for southern Vermonters to buy their cannabis. With a narrow stretch of the Connecticut River separating the towns, Hinsdale police Chief Todd Faulkner said it’s not the proximity to legal marijuana that bothers him, but the laws themselves.

He said he is “not impressed” with the decriminalization law in New Hampshire, saying it’s basically legalization but with a fine when users are caught. If and when Vermont begins recreational sales, Faulkner said he expects an increase in violations in Hinsdale.

Nashua police Chief Andrew Lavoie voiced frustration at offenders’ confusion as they cross his city’s border from Massachusetts.

“It’s not our job to educate people on New Hampshire law,” Lavoie said, drawing a comparison to another hotly debated topic – guns.

In New Hampshire, gun owners don’t need a license to carry a firearm, but they do in Massachusetts. If New Hampshire residents brings their handguns across the border without a permit to carry it, they will most likely be arrested for possessing an illegal firearm. Conversely, if users bring an ounce of legal Massachusetts marijuana into New Hampshire, they will likely be arrested for that.

Lavoie summed it up: “You can’t transport over the border.”

Conway police Lt. Christopher Mattei drew another comparison about the bordering Fryeburg, Maine. Maine towns can enact their own regulations on marijuana, which Fryeburg has, Mattei said.

He compared the discrepancy to laws surrounding alcohol. In “dry towns,” where booze is not allowed, people can just drive to the next town to buy some drinks, then find themselves caught in a legal limbo where something is legal in one town but not the next. He said residents in Conway could soon find themselves in a similar situation, especially without a patrolled border like the one with Canada.

Still, despite the changing laws and the confusion the might be causing, Mattei said the stigma around marijuana has changed, and officers don’t dig as deep into minor marijuana violations.

Shagoury, however, disputed the effects of looser marijuana laws, especially legalization in other states.

“I think if you look at it objectively, what’s happening in the other states, the benefits haven’t been there that a lot of proponents said,” he argued.

He maintained that marijuana should not be legalized, pointing to a strong black market in western states, increased hospital visits, higher rates of driver impairment and legal marijuana in the hands of children.

He also mentioned the “sharing system” as another reason legalization isn’t working in other states in districts. In Vermont and Washington, D.C., users can gift someone up to an ounce of marijuana so long as there is no exchange for the cannabis – no sale. A quick search on Craigslist and you’ll see various posts offering anything under the sun, including just a delivery fee, which comes with a “free gift” of marijuana conspicuously similar to the price of illegal marijuana sales.

“The share has been abused and it’s a mockery,” Shagoury said.

He also called out proponents who say legalization will help curb black market profits.

“You’ve got to understand these people are willing to violate federal law,” he said. “What makes you think they’re all of a sudden going to obey a state law that would cost them a lot of money? I think that’s wishful thinking.”

For all the talk of looser state laws, New Hampshire does not have any legal marijuana framework. The drug is still illegal at the federal level, and transporting any controlled substance across state lines is a felony. Across New Hampshire, police departments will continue to enforce laws currently on the books.

Shagoury said he thinks the future will hold more conversations and legislation within the state. Anair supported that idea.

“I think the federal government and state governments need to get on the same page before I would feel comfortable with New Hampshire moving any more forward than they already have,” Anair said.

(Jacob Dawson can be reached at 272-6414 ext. 8325, jdawson@comitor.com or on Twitter @jaked156.)]]>