Editorial: State should decriminalize marijuana

Published: 4/8/2016 12:15:07 AM

Ask a room full of honest adults how many have tried marijuana, and you’ll see plenty of hands. Ask them whether they have used harder drugs such as heroin or cocaine, and most of those hands will disappear. The fact is that pot isn’t the gateway drug that it is made out to be.

It’s time for New Hampshire to stop wasting time and money prosecuting people for possession of a substance that is far less destructive to society and personal health than alcohol.

HB 1631, which passed the House easily and is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee, is a solid step in the right direction. The bill would make possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana a violation-level offense resulting in confiscation of the pot and a $100 fine for the first offense, $200 for the second and $500 for the third. For those under 18 years old, parents or guardians would be notified, and the court could order up to 35 hours of community service and enrollment in a substance abuse education program.

That’s a significant change to current state law, in which possession of more than 5 grams of marijuana but less than 1 ounce is a misdemeanor punishable by up to three years in prison and a $25,000 fine. The penalty for possession of under 5 grams (an eighth of an ounce is 3.5 grams) is up to a year in prison and a $2,000 fine.

The “gateway drug” argument against marijuana decriminalization has not changed much over the years. It’s a myth that persists even amid an abundance of research, old and new, discrediting the theory.

In 1999, for example, an Institute of Medicine study found that “there is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.” The study also pointed out that marijuana would not be the most common nor the first “gateway” to the use of harder drugs anyway. That unfortunate honor belongs to alcohol, which New Hampshire is happy to sell in outlets along its highways and in strip malls throughout the state.

Lawmakers like to say that they serve in Concord to represent the will of their constituents. If that is the case, the numbers suggest HB 1631 should become law. According to a WMUR Granite State Poll released last month, 62 percent of New Hampshire residents believe marijuana should not only be decriminalized but legalized. That number has continued to rise even while awareness of the state’s opioid crisis has grown.

If science and the will of voters isn’t enough to sway senators, consider the costs connected to the state’s war on marijuana. An analysis by the ACLU of New Hampshire determined that New Hampshire spent more than $6.5 million enforcing pot possession laws in 2010. And there are social costs, too. Last month, Jeffrey Pendleton, a 26-year-old Nashua resident, died while being held on marijuana charges in Manchester’s Valley Street jail. Under HB 1631, he never would have been there to begin with.

If the House and Senate can come to terms, Gov. Maggie Hassan should not stand in the way. It should become law, even in an election year when every decision has political consequences.

Twenty states, including every New England state except for New Hampshire, have decriminalized marijuana. As far as we know, reefer madness has yet to destabilize the region. People are not dying in the streets from marijuana overdoses, and pot isn’t destroying New Hampshire families the way alcohol can.

For scientific, social and economic reasons, lawmakers are out of excuses to keep the state’s outdated and harmful marijuana penalties. The Senate should follow the House’s lead and pass HB 1631, and Hassan should sign it into law.

(Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the number of grams in an eighth of an ounce.)

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