N.H. Senate minority leader to propose marijuana legalization bill

  • FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2016 file photo, a marijuana joint is rolled in San Francisco. It is now legal in Massachusetts for adults to possess, grow and use limited amounts of recreational marijuana. While the voter-approved law took effect Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, it will be at least another year before the state issues retail licenses to sell the drug. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File) Marcio Jose Sanchez

Monitor staff
Published: 12/16/2016 11:55:06 PM

The push for legal marijuana in New Hampshire just got a high-profile backer.

N.H. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn, a Democrat from Dalton, said he plans to propose legislation with a firm date to legalize recreational marijuana use in the state.

Woodburn said he believes New Hampshire residents are ready for legal pot, adding that recent legalization in neighboring Maine and Massachusetts should motivate lawmakers here to take action.

Canada could also be poised to legalize the drug nationwide. Canada’s government is expected to draft legalization legislation next year.

“I think they have forced us to look at our laws and regulations,” Woodburn said. “What we can’t control is what’s happening all around us. We can’t put our heads in the snow.”

Even if a bill was passed this year, Woodburn said he would likely push the date for legal marijuana a few years down the road, until 2019 or 2020.

“You get a goal,” he said. “It’s like D-Day; we’re going to invade on this date.”

Woodburn coming out in favor of the issue gives legalization a high-profile boost in the New Hampshire Senate, the place where it has been stymied in past legislative sessions.

“I’m very, very pleased with Sen. Woodburn’s decision to show leadership on the legalization issue,” said Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s an issue that people are looking for leadership on, and there’s not been a lot of leadership in the senate.”

Marijuana legalization narrowly passed the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 2014 but faced stiff opposition in the senate.

Gov. Maggie Hassan was opposed to legalization, and Gov.-elect Chris Sununu has signaled he would take a similar stance.

Sununu said in a recent Portsmouth Herald interview that he wants to wait to see how neighboring states implement legalization before New Hampshire wades into the fray.

However, Sununu has also said he would support marijuana decriminalization in the state, which lawmakers and advocates say has a decent shot at passing in the upcoming legislative session.

Woodburn said one of the reasons the issue of legalization resonates strongly with him is his background as a high school teacher, and seeing some of his students’ lives disrupted from minor drug convictions involving marijuana.

The senator said there’s now a critical mass of people in New Hampshire who favor legalization, and their wishes should be listened to.

A WMUR/Granite State Poll conducted in March found 62 percent of adults in New Hampshire support legalization.

“We’re seeing frustrated citizens – the vast majority want legalization,” he said.

He said he will be looking closely at how legalization plays out in Maine and Massachusetts.

Simon said his organization would favor measures including allowing users to grow small numbers of plants for personal use, as well as the state starting to develop a legal market for marijuana where it could regulate and tax sales of the drug.

In Colorado, state government has collected over $150 million in tax revenue from legal marijuana sales, a portion of which goes toward school construction projects.

A similar proposal was put forward by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Marchand in the primary this fall.

Marchand estimated regulating and taxing legal marijuana would generate about $30 million worth of revenue to put in the state’s coffers.

Simon said he thinks legalization will probably face steep odds this year, but he added it’s time for lawmakers to start talking about it.

“The sooner we get rolling on this, the better,” he said. “It’s not enough to say, ‘We have an opioid crisis, we’re not going to talk about marijuana.’ ”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)

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