State’s marijuana legalization supporters set to pare back approach in 2020

Monitor staff
Published: 9/29/2019 9:41:24 AM

The 2019 state legislative year is nearly wrapped up, but supporters of marijuana legalization in New Hampshire are already looking forward to 2020.

And next year – amid a tough political environment and recent setbacks – their tactics may change.

That means paring back expectations.

State Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat and longtime advocate for legalization, says that rather than push for a full commercialization, retail and taxation structure in the Granite State next year, he may instead opt for a narrower form of legalization.

That approach might look more like Vermont’s: legalizing the possession of marijuana products and allowing users to grow their own at home, but preventing their sale and stopping the development of a retail industry.

“Straight up legalization, akin to what Vermont has,” Cushing said Tuesday. “It would legalize possession and use, but (nothing more).”

Ahead of a filing deadline, Cushing has submitted a request for legislation to legalize “the possession of certain amounts of marijuana, hashish, marijuana-infused products and plants.”

That request will be fleshed out by the Hampton representative alongside civil servants in the Office of Legislative Services in coming weeks, before it’s finalized for lawmakers. At this point, it’s just a blueprint.

But Cushing said that while it could be subject to change, he’s embracing a slimmed-down version of the broad-based approach he had pitched earlier this year.

“That’s part of the discussions that are ongoing about whether or not we will at least not make it a crime to possess cannabis,” he said.

Introduced back in January, House Bill 481 would have set up a complex retail and taxation structure to legal cannabis in the state, and created a new state agency to license stores and regulate them. The bill would have authorized the possession, purchase and sale of cannabis by those 21 and older.

But while it cleared the House on a 200-163 vote, the bill encountered headwinds in the Senate, a body long-skeptical of marijuana reform. In May, rather than vote to pass or kill it, senators opted to re-refer the bill to the Judiciary Committee, where it will remain until December.

Meanwhile, the political environment for legalization advocates is tough.

This year, Gov. Chris Sununu, a legalization opponent, vetoed a slate of bills that would have expanded the state’s medical marijuana program – most of which lawmakers failed to override last week. In one case, an effort to allow the state’s 8,000 medical marijuana patients to grow up to three cannabis plants at home failed to clear the 16-vote Senate override threshold by three votes.

Against that reality, Cushing said he’s exploring any way to be able to move the effort forward.

“We’re evaluating the fact that … we were not able to have it not be a felony for patients who are qualified to use therapeutic cannabis to grow their own plant,” he said.

On Tuesday, a coalition of marijuana legalization opponents – some from the national organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana – voiced the same concerns that have tanked marijuana bills in recent years.

The group was there to urge federal lawmakers to vote against the “SAFE Banking Act” – a bill up for a vote in the U.S. House that would allow financial institutions and banks to assist state marijuana retail operations. But they also spoke against legalization in New Hampshire.

“We border the state of Vermont,” said Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello, who served on an advisory commission in 2018 that helped craft HB 481. The dangers to legalizing, he argued, are that people take the limited amounts allowed under law as a green light to consume and transport much higher amounts.

“As far as the state of Vermont is concerned, they have no regulation, they have no oversight, they have no infrastructure. That type of system is bound to fail. … We’re seeing the bleed over to New Hampshire, where people can’t grow. And Vermont chooses to turn a blind eye to those repercussions.”

And at least one senator is already not on board – even to a pared-back approach that doesn’t include retail.

“I would be opposed to that,” said Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican who has led the charge in the Senate against legalization, once passing out copies of a book to his colleagues that warned of the substance’s dangers.

“As always, I’ll look at the details of the bill. Maybe Renny comes up with something new and exciting, but I think once having failed, I think a large part of the motivation behind this is going to be political.”

A spokesman for the governor declined to comment on Cushing’s bill.

For Cushing, pressure from neighboring states and from Granite Staters, who polls show largely support legalization, might make a difference. But how to navigate the reality of a governor opposed to legalization and a Senate not apparently inclined to override him promises to continue presenting challenges.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” he said.

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