Will N.H. become next state to decriminalize marijuana?

Monitor staff
Published: 4/5/2016 5:40:14 PM

A group of state representatives is pushing to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in New Hampshire, almost a month after a 26-year-old Nashua man died in jail while being held on a marijuana possession charge.

Officials are investigating the death of Jeffrey Pendleton, who was unable to post $100 bail at Hillsborough County jail. He died behind bars March 13.

“He never should have been arrested in the first place,” said Democratic Rep. Renny Cushing.

Cushing is one of several representatives backing a bill that seeks to reduce the penalties for possessing up to a half ounce of marijuana by making it a violation that carries a $100 fine on the first offense.

The measure has passed the Republican-led House and is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But the bill has come under fire from public health officials who say the state shouldn’t be reducing drug penalties amid an opioid epidemic, which claimed more than 400 lives in New Hampshire last year.

“Passage would only serve to add to the problem of addiction,” said Elizabeth Brochu of Communities for Alcohol- and Drug-free Youth.

Twenty states and Washington, D.C., have decriminalized marijuana, making possession of small amounts of the drug an infraction or a low-level misdemeanor as opposed to a state crime, according to the National Conference for State Legislatures.

New Hampshire is the only state in New England that has not lessened the penalties. Under current state law, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor that can result in three years imprisonment and a $25,000 fine.

During a public hearing Tuesday, the bill’s supporters argued New Hampshire’s marijuana penalties are too harsh on first-time offenders, unfairly target minorities and soak up state resources that could be used elsewhere.

New Hampshire spent more than $6.5 million enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010, according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. The study also showed that black people are 2.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in New Hampshire.

“If we’re serious about substance abuse, we better move our eyes to the opioid crisis and not squander precious resources arresting people for a small amount of marijuana,” said Cushing, of Hampton.

But opponents say the bill, HB 1631, would worsen the state’s opioid crisis because people who use marijuana are more likely to abuse harder drugs later on. Advocates pointed to a 2015 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found people who abuse marijuana are three times more likely to abuse heroin. And critics said passage of a bill reducing marijuana penalties would send a conflicting message, as the state tries to prevent people from using drugs.

“When the perception of harm decreases, as it certainly would under this bill, usage increases,” said Susan McKeown, a family support coordinator. “Given the current epidemic, it is an especially dangerous time in our state.”

New Hampshire has already legalized the use of medical marijuana. While the law is currently in effect, patients who qualify to use marijuana cannot yet legally access the drug here. The state has licensed four alternative treatment centers to distribute the drug, but they have yet to open their doors.

The Legislature has long considered decriminalizing marijuana. The House has passed several bills in recent sessions to lessen the penalties for pot possession. But none of those bills has ever made it through the Senate.

Republican Sen. Jeanie Forrester is proposing a competing bill this year that would change the penalties for marijuana possession by making possession of the drug an unspecified misdemeanor and increase the fine for a first-time offense from $350 to $500. The bill has already cleared the Senate and is up for a vote in the House today. Forrester, who opposes decriminalization, said the effort is meant to give courts more discretion.

“I wanted to put forward legislation to address the arguments that penalties are hurting young people and ruining their records,” said Forrester, of Meredith.

But Republican Rep. Adam Schroadter, the prime sponsor of the marijuana decriminalization bill, said Forrester’s proposal doesn’t solve the underlying issue.

“It’s maybe a little bit better than what we’re doing now,” said Schroadter, of Newmarket. “But it really doesn’t address the problem of trying to keep people out of the criminal justice system.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307, amorris@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @amorrisNH.)

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