N.H. marijuana legalization effort passes first major test, still faces strong opposition

  • The New Hampshire House has given preliminary approval to a bill legalizing recreational marijuana, putting the state on the path to joining several of its neighbors who allow the possession of small amounts of pot. AP file

Monitor staff
Published: 2/27/2019 4:38:54 PM

An effort to bring New Hampshire’s marijuana laws in line with other states passed a major hurdle Wednesday but it faces steep odds and formidable opponents ahead.

The House has passed a bill to legalize marijuana in New Hampshire, 209 to 147, in the first major test for a years-long effort by Rep. Renny Cushing.

House Bill 481 would legalize use of cannabis for those 21 and up, allowing them to transport and grow up to an ounce of it. But it would prohibit users from driving under its influen and selling it in any quantity.

The bill also creates a regulation plan allowing for the creation of retail cannabis sellers. And it would tax sales by those vendors at a rate of $30 per ounce of cannabis flowers.

Despite any momentum gained, the bill faces a promised veto by Gov. Chris Sununu, and Wednesday’s vote fell short of the two-thirds margin for a veto override.

Still, supporters said legalization would bring in a wealth of benefits, from increased business opportunity to the elimination of unfair possession punishments on low-income people.

Rep. Ed Butler, a Harts Location Democrat, pointed to what he said were major economic gains in states that have legalized, such as in Colorado.

Others, like Rep. Davis Meuse, a Portsmouth Democrat, said that legalizing would disrupt the criminal distribution process that already has spread cannabis to teenagers and young people.

“If you vote no, you’ll basically be voting to keep black market drug dealers in business,” Meuse said. “For many people, these people provide the real gateway to more serious drugs like heroin and fentanyl.”

Rep. Will Pearson, a 27-year-old Keene Democrat who said he had been “intimately familiar” with marijuana in his college days, said legalizing was necessary to liberalize a common practice that has been demonized.

“There’s an immense stigma associated with talking about it, much less even doing it,” he said.

But opponents said not enough is known about the effects of cannabis, and added that removing stigma through legalization would encourage those underage to take it up.

“Legalization is an experiment,” said Rep. Skip Berrien, an Exeter Democrat. “It’s an experiment to determine what harm marijuana will cause to our communities. ...This experiment puts our children at risk.”

One representative, Stephen Pearson, a Derry Republican, drew on his experience as a Manchester Fire Department lieutenant to speak against the bill. Observing those entering Safe Stations – the Manchester Fire Department’s treatment portal for those with substance use disorder – Pearson argued that marijuana played a major role in addiction.

“Not because of the drug itself,” he said, “but the social scene that surrounds that drug.”

Even if not addictive, Pearson said, marijuana was ever-present. “Early on we saw meth being the drug that took it up a level, and then it switched to heroin,” Pearson said. “But in so many cases this story begins with pot.”

Will Pearson and others disputed the connection, saying the health hazards of marijuana had been overblown. “I know we’re dealing with the opioid epidemic, but this is not that,” he said. “Not even close. I’d rather we compare cannabis to coffee or sugar.”

And speaking on the bill he’s been pushing for years, Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, pointed to the past.

“It wasn’t until 1934 that marijuana and cannabis was outlawed, and we’ve been dealing with what I think is a failed war on cannabis and I think it’s time to bring that to an end,” Cushing said.

Any effort to move the bill forward will have to get past the corner office. Sununu has remained staunchly opposed to the effort, citing potential effects on the opioid crisis. In December, he told a state commission that he would “absolutely” veto any legalization legislation “regardless of what the language looks like.”

That puts the onus on marijuana backers to amass veto-proof majorities. Supporters need 16 out of the Senate’s 24 members, and two-thirds of present members of the House to override the veto; Wednesday’s vote constituted 59 percent of those present.

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