N.H. marijuana support is hazy in state senate races

Monitor staff
Published: 10/31/2020 2:15:21 PM

When Republican Sen. Bob Giuda, a firm opponent of marijuana legalization, faced down New Hampshire’s first significant political fight to legalize last year, he knew the conditions would be difficult.

Cannabis advocates had public opinion on their side – 68% of Granite Staters support legalization – a large majority in the state House felt the same, and New Hampshire was surrounded on four sides by governments that had legalized the drug themselves.

But Giuda and his fellow opponents had their own arsenal to put in play. They brought to New Hampshire the former U.S. District Attorney for Colorado, the U.S. Drug Czar under President George W. Bush, doctors from MIT and Harvard, and a Newark bishop who led the fight against legalization in New Jersey, all of whom lamented the effects of legalization efforts in other states and warned New Hampshire not to move ahead.

After weeks of hearings, the pressure delivered results. Bogged down by disagreement, the House’s legalization bill – New Hampshire’s first since Democrats took over the House and Senate under Republican Gov. Chris Sununu – was pushed into a study committee.

“We worked very hard – I worked very hard – to kill that bill,” Giuda said.

Today, with an election coming up that could scramble the makeup of the New Hampshire Senate, Giuda knows the next fight is just around the corner. But the battle lines are even less clear than before.

With a number of New Hampshire state Senate candidates slogging through close general election battles, the picture for marijuana legalization in New Hampshire’s upper chamber is hard to pin down.

Of the 48 Democrats and Republicans running for the 24 New Hampshire Senate seats, 20 have explicitly voted for or supported full marijuana legalization, according to an unofficial tally by the Marijuana Policy Project – a national organization lobbying for marijuana legalization in all 50 states.

That’s higher than the usual level of support across both parties. But when it comes to the math necessary to tip the scales next year, it might not be enough.

Gov. Sununu has said he adamantly opposes legalizing cannabis, arguing that the state’s opioid epidemic makes the expansion of a new drug unwise. Sununu has stood firm, vowing to veto any legalization effort that reaches his desk.

His opponent, Democratic Sen. Dan Feltes, has endorsed legalization. But opinion polls show Feltes far behind Sununu in the race.

Should Sununu be re-elected, the road for marijuana legalization advocates to overturn his expected veto could prove tough.

Support for legalization has been historically high in the New Hampshire House in recent years, through both Republican and Democratic control. In the state Senate, though, resistance has been stronger. In order to overcome a veto, legalization advocates must muster 16 out of 24 senators to vote to override it – two-thirds of the body.

As of now, the 16 votes are not clearly defined. Many candidates have not taken direct public positions on legalization. Some haven’t made up their minds. And the issue doesn’t neatly fall along party lines.

In a detailed breakdown of each Senate race published on its website, the Marijuana Policy Project highlighted the confusion. The lobbying group has categorized state senators who clearly support as “green,” others who have opposed or voiced opposition as “red,” and a third category whose positions are unclear in “yellow.”

Among the supporters of marijuana legalization, some are the current occupants of their seats, namely Democratic Sen. David Watters, in District 4; Republican Sen. Harold French, in District 7; Democratic Sen. Jay Kahn, in District 10; Democratic Sen. Melanie Levesque, in District 12; Republican Sen. John Reagan in District 17; Democratic Sen. Jon Morgan in District 23; and Democratic Sen. Tom Sherman in District 24.

That’s seven of the necessary 16. Three more supporters are new Democratic candidates in open seats that were held by Democrats. If Suzanne Prentiss in District 5, Becky Whitley in District 15 and Rebecca Perkins Kwoka succeed their Democratic predecessors, the tally is up to 10 out of 16.

After that, marijuana advocates will have to start flipping seats. The majority of the all-in legalization candidates are challengers to the party that already holds the seats.

That includes District 1 candidate Sue Ford, a Democrat seeking to succeed Republican David Starr; District 2 candidate Bill Bolton, a Democrat challenging Sen. Bob Giuda; District 3 candidate Theresa Swanick, a Democrat challenging Sen. Jeb Bradley; District 6 candidate Christopher Rice, a Democrat challenging Sen. Jim Gray; District 8 candidate Jenn Alford-Teaster, a Democrat challenging Sen. Ruth Ward; District 13 candidate Maryellen MacKay, a Republican challenging Sen. Cindy Rosenwald; District 18 candidate George Lambert, a Republican challenging Sen. Donna Soucy; and District 20 candidate Carla Gericke, a Republican challenging Sen. Lou D’Allesandro.

Finally, there are the undecideds. Sitting Democratic Sens. Cindy Rosenwald of Nashua, Jeanne Dietsch of Peterborough, and Shannon Chandley of Amherst have given conflicting indications on their positions on full legalization – or have not spoken out at all. And still other challengers in both parties have not weighed in.

Matt Simon, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project who specializes in New Hampshire’s effort, argues that the opportunity to override a veto in the Senate is there this year, so long as Democrats manage to flip a few seats.

“The most likely path to victory is to actually get all of the other Democrats to vote in accordance with their party platform,” he said. But with some Democrats strongly opposed – Soucy and D’Allesandro among them – Simon said the rest would have to come from pickups.

Ford and Erin Hennessey, the respective Democratic and Republican candidates vying for the District 1 North Country seat could deliver an extra vote no matter what the outcome. And the race between Ward and Alford Teaster could notch another crucial vote, Simon said.

Yet much is uncharted. No New Hampshire governor has ever been presented with a full-scale legalization bill, no governor has issued a veto over such a bill, and no Legislature has attempted a veto override on a bill that has support and opposition in both parties.

But with so many closely fought races, featuring candidates that have either been a senator or campaigned to be one in a past election, Giuda says the time for strategizing is not here yet.

“Like every other candidate, we’re heading down to the finish line,” Giuda said. “I’m totally focused on my race. Every minute of the next six days is booked… We don’t know what the makeup of the Senate is going to be.”

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