NH-run cannabis proposal stirs debates among advocates and legislators 

NINA MOSKE

Monitor staff

Published: 06-12-2023 7:19 PM

Jim Riddle wants to get his cannabis from his Hillsborough backyard – not from a state-run dispensary.

“There’s nothing like being able to grow your own,” he said at a hearing for the State Senate Judiciary Committee in April. “It’s like the difference between tomatoes from your garden and ones from the grocery store. They have a lot more flavor when you grow them yourself. They’re better quality.”

Riddle, a retired farmer and current policy advisor to the New Hampshire Cannabis Association, is an outspoken advocate of fully-legalizing cannabis in the Granite State. As a medical marijuana card holder, he relies on the drug to treat chronic pain from Lyme disease and whiplash from a car accident. He also holds a USDA license to grow hemp, the seeds of cannabis plants, at home. Riddle grows the seeds, sells them to other growers, and destroys the rest of the plants for compost.

Despite his outspoken support of legalization, Riddle takes issue with recent proposals for state-controlled cannabis.

In May, after the Senate killed a widely-favored legalization bill, Gov. Chris Sununu issued an unexpected statement in support of legalization. “With the right policy and framework in place, I stand ready to sign a legalization bill that puts the State of NH in the driver’s seat, focusing on harm reduction – not profits,” he said in his announcement. But Sununu said that he would only approve a bill that “allows the state to control distribution and access” of the drug, to the dismay of many New Hampshire cannabis advocates who hope to model the state’s policy off of its New England neighbors.

Sununu’s system would function much like state liquor stores, but with cannabis products sourced solely from licensed in-state growers.

After the announcement, the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee scrambled to produce an amendment to an existing Senate bill that would fit the governor’s requirements but failed to come to a consensus.

New Hampshire is the only state in the region without legalized recreational cannabis, despite widespread public support. A recent University of New Hampshire poll found that 7 in 10 Granite Staters support legalizing marijuana for recreational use. But the path to legalization is contentious as advocates and lawmakers question whether state control would harm New Hampshire’s budding cannabis market.

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Matt Simon, director of public and government relations at Prime Alternative Treatment Center, a chain of medical marijuana dispensaries, said he doubts producers would want to participate in a cannabis intrastate market. “We have yet to find a business owner who says, ‘I would invest in that kind of model,’ where the state is the only buyer and can set the prices,” he said. “It’s really scary, from a business perspective.”

In a market where few producers are incentivized to sell to the state, Simon worries that consumers would travel to dispensaries in Maine, Massachusetts or Vermont to buy cannabis.

“I live in Nashua, and the parking lot of the dispensary right across the border in Tyngsborough is always full of New Hampshire plates,” he said. “They have a massive product selection, and it’s hard to understand how [the state] is going to be able to offer anything like that product selection and competitive pricing.”

Instead of total state control, Simon hopes for a “three-legged stool” of state-run dispensaries, private stores, and existing alternative treatment centers. Within that model, he thinks the cannabis market could come to resemble the craft beer market. “It’s highly competitive and consumers are very tuned into quality,” he said. “But again, if the quality isn’t there in New Hampshire stores, then consumers will have options elsewhere.”

Riddle agrees. He thinks the state-run model is a “Soviet-style route” that would suppress private enterprise. “As we go about legalization, we should live up to the ‘Live Free’ motto and do all we can to stimulate free enterprise and provide support to growers who want to enter this marketplace,” he said.

He argues that medical marijuana cardholders should be prioritized in efforts to legalize the drug. “Letting people grow their own, starting with the medical cardholders, is number one,” he said. A bill that would do just that, HB 431, is currently tabled in the Senate.

“New Hampshire has an opportunity because we’ve waited so long, to learn from other states what’s worked and what hasn’t,” Riddle said of legalization. “We have a chance to do it right, and to do it with our eyes wide open.”

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