Debate to decriminalize marijuana in New Hampshire reignited

Monitor staff
Sunday, November 27, 2016

The recent legalization of marijuana in neighboring Maine and Massachusetts has reignited the conversation from a new vantage point of whether to decriminalize marijuana in the Granite State.

No longer is New Hampshire just looking west to states like Colorado and Washington for a clearer picture of the effects of legalization. Granite Staters are now sandwiched between three states that have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. That includes in Vermont where lawmakers replaced criminal penalties with civil fines in 2013.

“I definitely think the referendums in Massachusetts and Maine are a game-changer,” said Democratic State Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton, who has spearheaded efforts in the New Hampshire House to decriminalize marijuana. “We’re already kind of an outlier as being the only New England state that criminalizes small amounts of marijuana.”

Cushing said he expects New Hampshire will follow suit next year with a decriminalization law. But the process will be done “the New Hampshire way,” he said, adding: “We like to put a New Hampshire stamp on things and do things a little differently than everyone else.”

Lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and treatment and recovery specialists need to come together and find a balance – and that can’t happen unless people are open to looking at decriminalization from a public health perspective, Cushing said.

While proponents of decriminalization argue prohibition has failed and that a regulated market is the answer, those in law enforcement and drug treatment remain apprehensive about the broader societal and generational consequences.

New Hampshire’s police chiefs say they’re skeptical and fearful that decriminalization of marijuana could lead to increased experimentation among young people. They also raise concern about whether decriminalization could send a contradictory message in a state that has prioritized efforts to combat drug abuse and addiction.

“I worry about teens and young adults becoming addictive to it and/or progressing to more dangerous drugs,” Tilton police Chief Robert Cormier said. “Marijuana is different than it was 20 years ago. There is more THC in it now. We certainly don’t want to send a message to our teens that it’s okay to smoke and that it won’t cause them harm.”

While a handful of chiefs in Merrimack and Belknap counties are not altogether opposed to a loosening of the law, they were adamant that New Hampshire should proceed with caution and learn from other states that have taken the leap to better understand the short- and long-term effects.

Devin Rowe, executive director of Drug Free New Hampshire, said the state shouldn’t simply follow in the footsteps of its neighbors without first asking the difficult questions.

“We do not want to be the guinea pigs and just learn as we go,” Rowe said.

In less than a month, anyone 21 and older in Massachusetts will be allowed to possess up to 10 ounces of marijuana and grow up to 12 plants at home. Retail stores are permitted to open on Jan. 1, 2018. The drug will be taxed at 3.75 percent in addition to the 6.25 percent state sales tax.

The state decriminalized small amounts of the drug in 2008.

Similarly, in Maine, those 21 and older will be able to possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana beginning next month. The state must develop rules to regulate retail sales, which will be taxed at 10 percent.

Franklin police Chief David Goldstein said New Hampshire needs to stand alone in deciding what is best for its residents. He said that can’t happen unless the key stakeholders have an equal chance to raise their concerns and educate themselves about all sides of the issue.

Goldstein, who co-chairs the legislative committee for the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, said that despite many years of discussion, not enough attention is being paid to New Hampshire’s children.

“If mom and dad have a joint after dinner instead of a glass of wine, what’s the social issue here? The perception of the dangerousness of marijuana is not really there,” he said.

“In the juvenile courts, kids are asked why they’re using drugs. Their answer: ‘Because I’m under stress and I need to feel well.’ If that’s true, why are we not following that up with some other questions?”

Those in drug prevention agreed, saying they’re hopeful lawmakers will consider policy reform that acknowledges the broader public health issue of substance abuse.

Kate Frey, deputy director of New Futures, said reform should not just focus on in-school prevention programs but also address the gap in social services for those most in need. New Futures is a New Hampshire nonprofit organization that advocates for policy to combat drug and alcohol abuse, and it has previously opposed legislation to decriminalize marijuana.

“Like any public health change, it takes years to see what the outcomes are. We learned that from tobacco,” Frey said.

And while many in the community zero in on the societal effects of decriminalization, proponents of recreational marijuana use are just as vocal about their cause. Some say they should be free to smoke in their residencies and that the government should only step in if they’re in a public place causing others harm.

Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, has lobbied for marijuana legislation in Concord for roughly a decade. He said New Hampshire is overdue to decriminalize marijuana and that the state is set for such a bill to finally be signed into law.

While acknowledging the opioid crisis, he said police officers here shouldn’t be wasting their time arresting people for possessing small amounts of a substance that is legal in so many other states.

“The toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube,” Simon said. “The government has to decide what the appropriate policies are in light of that reality.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)