Opponents to N.H. marijuana legalization show up in force at hearing

Monitor staff
Published: 4/23/2019 5:34:17 PM

Two months ago, the prospect of marijuana legalization in New Hampshire seemed a distinct possibility.

Citizens like the idea, with 68 percent supporting it in a May 2017 UNH poll and the same proportion supporting in March 2019. A flip of the House and Senate to Democratic control last year boosted expectations. Even Gov. Chris Sununu, a staunch opponent who has vowed a veto, warned that might not be enough.

“...There’s a good chance that veto could get overruled,” he said in remarks in December.

But reality is proving otherwise. After an initial House vote of 209-143 in February a second vote sent a jolt to supporters: 200-163, or 55.1% – more than 40 votes short of two-thirds veto-proof majority. And a vow by Sen. Bob Giuda to mount a forceful opposition campaign has so far been unmatched by a public legalization campaign in the Senate.

Now, weeks ahead of the bill’s first vote before the full Senate, with unclear veto override majorities in both chambers, its overall prospects appear to be dimming.

At a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on the legalization bill Thursday, opponents – some from across the country – showed up in force.

A bishop from Newark New Jersey, Jethro James, spoke on what he said would be the destabilizing effects of legal marijuana proliferation on low-income and minority users. James recently pressured the New Jersey legislature to drop its own legalization effort in March.

Christine Miller, a former neurological researcher at Johns Hopkins University, pointed to links between early-onset schizophrenia in young adults and marijuana use.

Others weighed in with professional warnings, from police chiefs to pediatricians. And some spoke to personal experiences.

Quincy Roy, a sophomore at Memorial High School in Manchester, brought a New Hampshire perspective. Recently, a person close to her, facing troubling home life, fell into heavy marijuana use, Roy testified. That decision caused sleep loss, rebelliousness, a spiral into other substances, a dip in personal health, and, eventually, a failure to graduate.

“He became addicted to it, and the lifestyle,” she said.”It takes a person ten times harder to get back on track after going off.”

Roy, joined Making it Happen, a youth-driven anti-substance abuse group, to cope with what happened to that person, who she declined to name out of privacy. At Tuesday’s hearing, she argued that legalization would only exacerbate the spread of marijuana, both in schools and in homes around children.

“To legalize a drug, it’ll enable more adults to say ‘Oh I never thought of that. I never thought that it would be that bad,” she said. “By legalizing you say that it’s okay to do this.”

As the Senate vote nears, Giuda has become the opposition’s de facto leader. Speaking at the end of a marathon Senate voting session earlier this month, Giuda passed out a book to colleagues – “Tell Your Children,” by Alex Barensen, a controversial title that connects marijuana to psychosis – and urged them to read it.

And he spoke forcefully Tuesday too, helping to organize the press conference and speaking against the bill.

“We have decriminalized marijuana in this state; nobody’s getting arrested,” he said, adding his support for medical marijuana. “...Legalization is really about commercialization.”

The hearing was populated with supporters of legalization, too. Rep. Renny Cushing, the prime sponsor of the legalization bill, House Bill 481, said it the bill was important on criminal justice grounds, and that the revenue raised would help address any negative health effects and dissuade use by youths. He and other advocates added that creating a legal framework to regulate sales would be safer than letting black market sales run amok.

Meanwhile, Jeanne Hruska, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, tackled a common claim made by opponents: that a 2017 law to decriminalize possession up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana took care of the legal inequities surrounding the marijuana prohibition. With those caught possessing still facing civil fines of over $100, the decriminalization has not gone nearly far enough, she said.

Still, as the bill heads to an executive vote, its future is less clear than ever, and many senators still appear on the fence. It’s a fact that even legalization supporters grudgingly acknowledge.

“In the here and now getting it done this year is very difficult,” said Matt Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization lobbying group.

“A lot of people managed to get mired in various details of policy,” he added. “I think it’s become politically unpalatable to say you’re against (legalization) in the year 2019 so a lot of people fixated on this or that aspect – “oh I don’t believe in a sales tax” – something that had nothing to do with ending prohibition.”

Yet whatever the uphill situation this year, with public support and legalization unfolding in each of New Hampshire’s four neighbors, proponents argue it’s only a matter of time.

“In the big picture we certainly have the wind at our back; there’s overwhelming public support for doing this,” Simon said.

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




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