Recreational pot approved by N.H. House; governor opposed 

  • In this Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017 photo, James MacWilliams prunes a marijuana plant that he is growing indoors in Portland, Maine. New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow the recreational use of marijuana. Maine passed its Marijuana Legalization Act on November 2016, and became one of the first states on the East Coast to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) Robert F. Bukaty

For the Monitor
Published: 1/9/2018 12:12:11 PM

A bill that would legalize marijuana for recreational use by adults cleared a major hurdle on Tuesday, as the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted in favor of the measure.

But the bill faces more votes in the House and an uncertain future if it reaches the Senate. And if the legislation did eventually reach the governor’s desk, it faces a roadblock.

Minutes before the House vote, Gov. Chris Sununu told the Monitor and WKXL radio in Concord he was against the legislation.

“Are you kidding? We are in the middle of one of the biggest drug crises the state has ever seen,” Sununu said. “To go to a full recreational marijuana when other states are seeing all the problems it has and issues it is bearing – it’s definitely not something I’m supportive of right now.”

The legislation would allow people 21 and older to legally possess three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana and grow up to three mature cannabis plants at home. The bill would not allow for the retail sale of marijuana.

“This just means it will no longer be a crime to cultivate or possess a small amount of marijuana. It leaves in place the prohibition against sales and distribution,” argued Democratic state Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton, a longtime supporter of marijuana legalization.

A House Criminal Justice and Public Safety subcommittee passed the bill, House Bill 656, but it was rejected in November by the full committee. But committee votes are only a recommendation. And the full House voted, 183-162, to overturn the committee’s labeling of the measure as “inexpedient to legislate.”

The House then voted, 207-139, to pass an amended version of the bill, which dropped provisions that would have created a regulatory system for selling and taxing the drug. It next heads to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Cushing voiced optimism when speaking with reporters after the vote.

“I think we’re getting closer to treating adult use of marijuana as a matter of personal discretion and not an interest that the state has in wanting to arrest them and put them in prison,” he said.

The vote came just five days after the Vermont House approved a similar bill. The measure passed the Vermont Senate last year and Gov. Phil Scott has indicated he’ll sign the legislation into law.

Massachusetts and Maine voted in 2016 to legalize recreational marijuana.

“I think the recent actions by the Vermont House create a situation where effective July 1 of this year New Hampshire’s going to be surrounded by states where the adult use of marijuana for recreational purposes is going to be legal,” Cushing told the Monitor on Monday. “I think that we’d do well to get in step with where the national trend is going.”

Canada, New Hampshire’s neighbor to the north, is expected to legalize marijuana consumption later this year.

Rep. David Welch, a Kingston Republican who is chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, was one of only two lawmakers who spoke out against the bill in the House chamber.

In opposing the legislation, he highlighted a move last week by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to scrap a nearly five-year policy from former president Barack Obama’s administration that relaxed enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that legalized the drug.

Welch also cited a State House commission’s ongoing study of possible legalization, taxation and regulation of marijuana. The commission reports back to the Legislature later this year.

“It is better to know the territory before setting out for a hike,” Welch said.

And GOP Rep. Pat Abrami of Stratham, who heads the study commission, made a similar argument.

But Cushing countered that the bill “does not preclude the commission going forward and doing its work and figuring a scheme by which we can have commercial sales and distribution of marijuana for adult recreational use.”

Four years ago, the New Hampshire House narrowly approved a bill that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana for adults. But after a veto threat by then-Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who’s now the state’s junior U.S. senator, the bill failed during a second House vote.

Last year, the House and Senate passed a bill that decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, making it a violation-level offense. It was signed into law by Sununu, Hassan’s successor in the corner office.

But Sununu, the state’s first GOP governor in a dozen years, doesn’t support the new bill. He argued that full legalization may add to the state’s acute opioid epidemic by encouraging drug use.

To reach the governor’s desk, the bill would still need to pass more hurdles in the House and Senate.

Cushing remained optimistic.

“I think attitudes are changing in the country and they’re changing in the state. And I think the reality of Vermont Legislature passing a legalization and regulation is going to have an impact,” he said. “I know we’re really early in the legislative process but I can’t see things changing from the direction they’re heading in, which is to make adult use of recreational (marijuana) legal in New Hampshire.”

If the bill reaches the state Senate, the measure could face plenty of opposition.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn backs the legislation.

“I’ll be supportive of it and I know there’s a number of Democrats who do support that,” said the Democrat. “It’s time for a sane sensible marijuana policy.”

But Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley predicted the bill wouldn’t succeed in the chamber.

He mentioned the compromise last year on marijuana decriminalization and the expansion a few years ago of medical marijuana, but he said, “I think we want to take stock with what’s happening in other states.”

First-term Republican Sen. Bill Gannon of Sandown was less diplomatic.

“It won’t get through the Senate, not even close,” he vowed.

“We don’t think it’s good for the children of New Hampshire, for the state itself. It’s time hasn’t come,” Gannon said.


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