The ins and outs of the proposal to legalize marijuana in N.H.

  • A man holds marijuana in a piece of rolling paper. Lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on a proposal by Hampton Rep. Renny Cushing that would legalize marijuana in New Hampshire. AP file

  • Testimony on a bill to legalize marijuana in New Hampshire was held in Representatives Hall Tuesday. Ethan DeWitt—

Monitor staff
Published: 2/5/2019 6:11:34 PM

Hundreds of marijuana legalization supporters poured into the State House on Tuesday, as a long-awaited bill by Hampton Rep. Renny Cushing received its first public hearing. The hearing, held in Representative’s Hall, drew speakers on both sides of the topic for testimony that extended deep into the afternoon.

The bill comes as New Hampshire finds itself surrounded by states that have legalized cannabis. Cushing’s bill would do the same and apply a tax and regulation scheme on legal sales.

Supporters have made pleas for individual liberty and criminal justice reform; opponents warn the move could exacerbate the state’s opioid epidemic and pose risks to teenagers.

But what does New Hampshire’s bill actually do? Let’s take a tour.

What does the bill allow?

The bill allows anyone 21 years or older to “use” marijuana. That means anyone in that age group could possess, consume, grow, buy, process or transport cannabis without legal retribution – within certain parameters.

On this point, the legislation is clear: No state law enforcement official may put any time or resources into the arrest or seizure of marijuana, as long as that use complies with the proposed law.

That doesn’t mean that the use would be unlimited. To start, there are possession limits: no more than one ounce of plant-based cannabis (roughly equivalent to two big handfuls), and no more than five grams of concentrated hashish at a time. Those growing the plant themselves may only have three mature plants at a time – and six plants total – per household.

And it doesn’t mean that adults can use everywhere. No one may use marijuana in public; doing so would result in a $100 fine. Landlords are free to ban smoking in rental properties, although vaping – ingesting through vaporization – may not be restricted.

The bill would also prevent marijuana use in moving vehicles – whether they be cars, snowmobiles, off-road vehicles, boats or planes. That rule applies to passengers of those vehicles. Violating that could garner up to a $500 fine on a first offense, and up to a $1,000 fine on a second.

Finally, the bill makes clear that those who use marijuana may not sell it, either for money, favors, or goods and services. But they can transfer it to others as long as there is no payment.

There are additional restrictions on growers, too: Those looking to grow must keep it out of sight of the public, and they must take precautions to ensure that those under 21 don’t have access – for instance, by locking a door.

The end result? The bill would allow adults to use marijuana in their homes and in non-public places, and it would regulate much of the behavior like alcohol.

How would the lawbe enforced?

Much of the new law would be enforced by state and local police. But the legislation also creates a new arm of the state – the Cannabis Control Commission – to oversee sellers and manufacturers.

That three-person commission would be responsible for a lot. One key task: Creating and adopting the rules to regulate the marijuana establishments.

Other responsibilities would include drawing up health and safety codes, hour limitations, labeling requirements for cannabis products, setting limits on THC content, nicotine content and potency. And that’s to say nothing about a duty to ensure fair competition between sellers in the state.

The commissioners would also be responsible for licensing cannabis establishments and carrying out investigations. At any time, a commissioner or staff person could enter a business to make sure they are up to code.

The bill would include extensive restrictions for those serving Cannabis Control Commission to ensure they had no ties to the marijuana industry while serving.

Who would be able to sell?

Under the proposed law, New Hampshire residents still could not buy from unauthorized sellers or dealers. But buying from licensed retailers would be legal.

Right now, those retailers don’t exist. Establishing a retail location would require jumping through a series of hoops.

First, the interested seller would submit an application to the Control Commission, which would charge an application fee of up to $10,000. The seller would also apply to the municipality and pay a $500 fee for that.

If successful, the commission would issue a registration to the applicant within 90 days.

But there remain a few caveats: For one, no New Hampshire town or city in the state would be required to allow retail marijuana establishments. Any city could establish an ordinance prohibiting the practice or restricting it, which would make the application futile.

And cities that do allow the establishments could establish their own procedure for reviewing applications that the would-be seller would need to satisfy.

By default, no seller can put a retail location within 1,000 feet of a school, but the law allows cities to reduce that buffer area to whatever distance they want if they so choose.

How would cannabisbe taxed?

Supporters of legalization have long used potential tax benefits as a selling point. Under the bill, all legal sales of marijuana would be taxed at a rate of $30 per ounce on cannabis flowers and $10 per ounce on non-flower cannabis.

Estimates for exactly how much that would bring into the state are hard to pin down. Last year, in analysis prepared for a study commission, the Department of Revenue Administration estimated that legalization could bring in as much as $58 million a year.

But the department has dropped that upper estimate in its fiscal analysis for the new bill. Now, assuming that around 130,000 people bought an average of 7.9 ounces of cannabis a year, the DRA has calculated that House Bill 481 could bring in between $19 million and $31 million.

But without strong underlying data, anything is possible.

Whatever tax money is generated, the money would be distributed to numerous sources. Administrative costs for enforcement and regulation would be covered first. An estimated $50,000 would go to the Department of Safety for a drug data monitoring program.

And the remainder of the tax haul would be split up between the state and towns. Twenty-three percent of that money would go to the Department of Health and Human Sevices for substance abuse treatment programs; 33 percent to towns and cities based on the number of sales and cannabis establishments they each had; 5 percent to public safety agencies; 6 percent to public education campaigns; and 33 percent back to the general fund.

What comes next?

The road ahead for this bill is still long and winding.

Following Tuesday’s hearing, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will jump into workshop mode, tinkering with the policy side of the bill as it relates to their committee. Then, it’ll travel to the House floor, where it’ll need a majority vote to proceed.

The bill will likely also need to pass through the Ways and Means and Finance committees, with each referral requiring an affirmative vote on the House floor. And that’s before it crosses over to the Senate.

Yet for all the future hurdles, if Tuesday’s exhaustive debate proved anything, the energy on all sides of the debate is unlikely to fade soon.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at 369-3307 or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)


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