Governor’s commission on alcohol and drugs against N.H. pot legalization

  • Members of the Governor's Commission on Alcohol and Other Drugs discuss a resolution opposing the legalization of marijuana in New Hampshire, Friday Jan. 25, 2019. The measure passed with no opposition. Ethan DeWitt—Ethan DeWitt

Monitor staff
Published: 1/25/2019 5:46:07 PM

A panel of state officials and opioid treatment specialists have recommended against legalizing marijuana in the state of New Hampshire, arguing that the long term health effects aren’t yet known and it could worsen the state’s addiction crisis.

In an unopposed voice vote Friday, the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Other Drugs took the unusual step to oppose House Bill 481, which would legalize and tax the drug in the state for those over 21 and provide a framework to regulate sales.

“This is about child protection,” said Tim Rourke, the body’s former chairman and president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. “This is about keeping people safe. This is about making sure that we do not recreate the mistakes we made in alcohol and tobacco policy over the last hundred years.”

Democratic Rep. Rennie Cushing of Hampton, a long-time legalization advocate and the sponsor of HB 481, said the commission’s vote was based on a broad misunderstanding of the effort.

“I think that they are ignoring the emerging science that cannabis is an exit drug not a gateway drug to the opioid crisis,” Cushing said Friday.

Typically, the commission oversees the state’s drug and alcohol fund and helps disburse payments to programs to fight addiction. But the decision to weigh in on the bill came out of a request by Gov. Chris Sununu at a December meeting, who urged the body to speak against the bill.

Five members abstained: representatives of the Business and Industry Association, the Insurance Department, the Department of Education, the state court system, and the National Guard, all of whom are remaining neutral on the legislation.

But the resolution was supported wholeheartedly by other state agencies, including the Department of Safety, which oversees the New Hampshire state police.

“The Department of Safety is not going to abstain – we’re going to oppose this,” said Commissioner John Barthelmes. “This is a social experiment, where there is conflicting data in a lot of areas, some good, some bad… We want to be behind the curve; we don’t want to be leading the charge and going with the other states that are going to legalize.”

Members of the state Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Corrections, Liquor Commission and Suicide Prevention Council also voted to oppose the legislation.

For Rourke, the adequacy controls in the bill around the potency of the drug – as well as what he said was insufficient oversight built in over potential health effects – guided his opposition to the bill.

“I feel like the bar is high, and the onus is on those who want to promote legalization to meet it,” he said. “This bill does not.”

Cushing contended that the bill does address those areas, adding that it was informed by a year-long study commission that convened last year. And he called the concerns a “diversion” from the intent of the bill.

“The impetus for me comes from a criminal justice point of view,” he said. “I don’t think we should be spending $40,000 a year to keep people in prison because they use a product that is legal in every state that surrounds us, as well as Canada.”

He added: “What they need to understand is prohibition is a failure.”

The vote comes ahead of an expected blistering fight in the Legislature over the legalization bill. Previous efforts have cleared the House only to come up short in the Senate, but advocates are hoping a new makeup in the Senate could tilt the balance their way.

Sununu has vowed to veto a legalization bill, setting up a potentially nailbiting scramble for two-thirds override majority should the Legislature bring the bill to his desk.

On Friday, the governor applauded the Commission’s decision.

“I am very pleased that the Commission, composed of public health officials in the treatment, recovery, and prevention fields, unanimously came to the conclusion that now is not the time for the recreational legalization of cannabis in New Hampshire,” the governor said in a statement.

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