Lawmakers move toward studying Sununu’s cannabis proposal

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 06-28-2023 4:00 PM

A month after Gov. Chris Sununu said he would support legalizing marijuana in New Hampshire if it were regulated and sold through state liquor stores, lawmakers are moving toward studying that approach.

After negotiations last week, House and Senate lawmakers agreed on a last-minute amendment to a bill to create a study commission for a liquor store-based model. That bill, House Bill 611, will need final approval from the full House and Senate this week.

“This is a long-term, sustainable solution for our state,” Sununu said of the liquor-store model in May. “I am supportive of legalizing marijuana in the right way – with this Legislature – rather than risk a poorly thought out framework that inevitably could pass under future governors or legislatures.” 

If approved, the commission will look at “the feasibility of establishing a state-controlled system to sell marijuana to adults 21 years and older.” It will also study how to create that system while keeping distribution and access under the state’s control, how to allow the state to control the messaging on and marketing of cannabis, how to let cities and towns to reject or limit state cannabis sales in their jurisdictions, and how to prevent “marijuana miles” where cannabis retail is too concentrated in one geographic area. 

The commission will include representation from the House, Senate, governor’s office, Attorney General’s Office, New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, New Hampshire Bankers Association, American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, the state’s alternative treatment centers for therapeutic cannabis, and a medical professional. 

A liquor store cannabis sales model would be unique; no other state that has legalized cannabis has created a state-controlled retail market. Most states that have legalized allow licensed businesses to grow, sell, and distribute it. 

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Many New Hampshire cannabis advocates have opposed the liquor store approach, arguing it creates a state monopoly on sales that would hurt cannabis growers’ ability to negotiate prices. Some also argue that a state-run system will not effectively undercut the black market for cannabis, allowing that to continue. Others say it would cut off opportunities to allow people who have been affected by cannabis prohibition, especially people of color, to find economic justice by starting cannabis retail businesses after legalization. 

Some advocates, such as the ACLU of New Hampshire, are more supportive, countering that after years of difficulty passing a legalization bill, lawmakers should move forward with any bill that stops cannabis-based arrests and that has Sununu’s support. 

New Hampshire decriminalized the possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of cannabis in 2017, but those caught with less than that limit can still be fined. 

In 2022, Senate lawmakers killed a bill that would create a similar liquor store approach, in part because of opposition from those pushing for legalization. 

If approved, the commission would begin meeting over the summer and fall, and would be tasked with producing a report on its recommendations by Dec. 1. House and Senate lawmakers would be able to submit legislation adhering to Sununu’s requests ahead of the 2024 legislative year. 

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