Editorial: The human cost of reefer madness

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Last month, a 23-year-old Concord woman lost her life over $90 worth of marijuana. The amount involved, according to police reports, was a half ounce. Her alleged attacker has been charged with murder.

Recently, Gov. Chris Sununu said he would sign House Bill 640. The bill decriminalizes the possession of three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana or five grams or less of hashish, a drug made of resins extracted primarily from cannabis flowers.

There is, of course, no connection between the alleged murder and the bill the governor plans to sign, but it’s impossible not to wonder whether the murder would have happened had marijuana been decriminalized, or had New Hampshire followed the lead of states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.

The belief that marijuana is a “gateway” drug whose use inexorably leads to stronger drugs like cocaine and heroin and ultimately addiction was debunked years ago. In 2012, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health flatly stated that while some people who have tried marijuana go on to try harder drugs, “the science shows overwhelmingly that for most people marijuana is not a gateway drug.”

Nonetheless, great harm can come from getting caught with it or, as happened in Penacook, from an encounter with the culture surrounding illegal drugs.

HB 640 recognizes the first problem.

Though people, most of them young, are no longer sentenced to long prison terms for the possession of a small quantity of marijuana, an arrest and conviction for drug possession can, in the words of the bill, “lead to a lifetime of harsh consequences. These may include denial of student financial aid, housing, employment and professional licenses.”

Since millions of Americans have used, and no doubt will continue to use, marijuana, decriminalization will end the waste of human potential that can come with a conviction.

The next step – legalization of marijuana and its regulated sale – could have downsides of its own but could also prevent violent crimes. It would also break the link between marijuana and harder drugs, because dealers often trade in both. Marijuana would be treated and perhaps sold under government control, much like tobacco and alcohol, which statistically is a more dangerous drug.

The new law, which will take effect 60 days after the governor signs it, goes to great lengths to safeguard youth, whose growing brains can be harmed by marijuana use. Minors found guilty of marijuana possession will be referred to a counselor for a substance abuse assessment that could potentially lead to court-ordered treatment. People under age 21 found guilty of possession will be able to opt out of paying a fine if they undergo a risk assessment.

Maine, Massachusetts and seven other states have legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, and its taxation could ultimately raise a significant amount of revenue.

New Hampshire’s Legislature should closely track the experience of those states, less with an eye toward the general fund than to break the sales chain between marijuana and harder drugs.

The result, we believe, will be the legalization of small amounts of a drug that while commonly available is by definition sold by criminals.