‘The next major battle’: Sununu charges against marijuana legalization

Monitor staff
Published: 12/14/2018 5:56:56 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu came out swinging against the effort to legalize marijuana Friday, calling it one of the biggest policy fights for his administration next year and urging members of a prominent state drug and alcohol commission to rally against its passage.

In an impromptu set of remarks at a monthly meeting of the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery, Sununu reiterated his opposition to the idea and said he would “absolutely” veto legislation “regardless of what the language looks like.” And he made clear the office would take a forceful approach to defeating the bill, including by coordinating with a national lobbyist to kick off a state-wide campaign.

“Let’s understand that what we are facing in the next six months is the most significant, substantive change potentially to the negative, I believe ... to what we’ve been doing,” the governor told the group, invoking the state’s response to the opioid crisis.

“This is the next major hurdle,” the governor added. “This is the next major battle, if you will, aside from funding and things like that.”

Advocates of legalization are mounting an effort to push a bill through the House and Senate next year, after recent efforts have come up short. The New Hampshire Democratic Party, which voted to include legalization in its party platform earlier this year, now commands majorities in both chambers, bolstering hopes of passage.

It’s a reality not lost on the governor, who admitted to a growing appearance of political momentum behind the bill. “My guess is if we sit on it and do nothing, the bill comes to my desk,” he said, vowing a veto. “But then there’s a good chance that veto could get overruled.”

Still, Sununu stressed the issue is “not a fait accompli,” and requested that the non-partisan commission discuss the bill and vote on a position ahead of the legislative process.

For his part, Sununu has already met with a leading national anti-legalization advocate, Kevin Sabet, to help devise a campaign strategy against the bill, he told the group. Sabet, a former drug policy advisor for the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations, has since dedicated his career to marijuana laws, authoring the book Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana and starting an advocacy organization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, to help fight legalization efforts.

Sununu said he had met with Sabet previously and is planning to meet with him again next week to “lay out the groundwork” for a campaign.

“Kevin Sabet is engaging with us very aggressively,” Sununu said. “He’s very excited, he’s raised a lot money nationally. He’s ready to make a strong stand here in New Hampshire. I think that could be a great use to us.”

Comprised of state officials and public health professionals, and responsible for the disbursement of millions of state-controlled dollars to fight addiction, the Commission provided an unusual backdrop for the governor’s political remarks. But Sununu argued that a legalization bill ran against the group’s interests and that the panel’s expertise could prove influential for legislators should it take a stand against the bill.

“We gotta start thinking about it,” he told members. “If the Commission doesn’t start talking about it until the legislation is really being debated in the final week, we’ve missed the boat.”

It is unclear how the 28-member body might vote on the topic. The group voted Friday to table discussion until its next meeting on Jan 25. But among many around the table Friday, the governor appeared to have a receptive audience.

“I think if the non-verbals are any indication in the room, the commission feels ready to take that on, and appreciates the importance,” said Tim Rourke, a former chairman of the commission who remains a public member.

As for Rourke? “I sit with the governor on that one,” he said of legalization. “What’s happening nationally is an untested experiment, and I don’t think we can afford to experiment.”

In making his pitch, Sununu said legalizing could keep addiction in the state alive and erase modest declines in the state’s projected overdose death rate. And he argued that New Hampshire had to push back against the state by state trend, which has seen all of the Granite State’s neighbors legalize in recent years.

“The states who have fallen to it kind of have not pushed back strongly on it, have not had strong campaigns against it, have not had strong messaging around it,” he said. “The state that is now I believe leading this country in providing infrastructure for substance misuse and abuse, that is us.”

But supporters of legalization pushed back at Sununu’s remarks, accusing the governor of twisting the intention of a bill meant to regulate the marijuana sales that already happen in the state. Legalizing the drug would merely allow taxes and rules to attach to those sales, said Matt Simon, New England Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a major backer of marijuana legislation in New Hampshire.

“Sadly, the message Governor Sununu is sending to Granite Staters couldn’t be more clear. It’s ‘support your local drug dealer, and to hell with any sort of regulated system.’ ”

Simon pointed to a 2017 University of New Hampshire poll that found 68 percent of New Hampshirites support marijuana, and that 74 percent would prefer sales to take place in licensed stores. And he criticized the governor’s cooperation with Sabet, who he called “the last person (Sununu) should be inviting to Concord.”

“The people of New Hampshire deserve better leadership from a governor who professes to care so deeply about improving drug policies,” Simon said.

Exactly what form next year’s legalization bill will take remains to be seen. But Patrick Tufts, present chairman of the drug and alcohol prevention commission, said the commission will be watching closely.

“We’ve got about six weeks until the next meeting, so we’ll get a copy of the bill. I’d like to see some of the data ... on impact in other states. I think we have an obligation to be aligned to our strategic plan.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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