The latest plan to legalize the possession and retail sale of marijuana in New Hampshire enjoys broad bipartisan support, as well as backing from advocacy groups across the political spectrum. But the bill’s primary sponsor cautions that it’s still a work in progress.
“I hope the end product looks completely different than what you’re seeing now,” House Majority Leader Jason Osborne said at a House news conference ahead of the first major hearing on the bill in the House Commerce Committee on Wednesday.
As it stands, Osborne’s proposal would allow anyone over the age of 21 to possess or give away up to 4 ounces of marijuana. It would also void records for prior marijuana possession offenses and allow state-approved retailers to sell cannabis. Retail sales would be taxed at 8.5%.
As written, the plan would also allow adults 21 and older to “safely grow up to six plants (three of which may be mature) and possess the cannabis produced by those plants at home.”
Money generated from marijuana sales would go toward state pensions and substance abuse prevention. It would also flow to cities that allow retail sales and to law enforcement.
House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm, a co-sponsor of the bill, predicted that legalization will lead to business development in New Hampshire, which is now the only New England state where possession of marijuana for recreational use remains illegal. He argues that allowing adults to use cannabis would also mitigate the harm caused by criminal prosecutions, which disproportionately affect people of color in New Hampshire.
“Our communities and our economy will be stronger when we legalize adult-use cannabis in New Hampshire,” Wilhelm said.
New Hampshire decriminalized marijuana for personal use in 2017.
But according to the ACLU of New Hampshire, around 1,000 people are still charged with marijuana possession each year in New Hampshire.
“Our estimate is that we are spending about $2.6 million each year on pure enforcement of marijuana possession laws in our state,” said Frank Knaack, policy director for the ACLU of New Hampshire.
Sununu’s office does not expect the bill to reach the governor’s desk
The House has repeatedly endorsed plans to legalize cannabis.
Marijuana bills are usually heard first in the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee. This bill was assigned to the House Commerce Committee, an apparent move by the leadership to cast the bill as more about business than law and order.
But traditional enemies of marijuana legalization showed up at Wednesday’s hearing armed with familiar arguments.
“The legalization and commercialization of cannabis is creating a public health hazard,” Bedford Police Chief John J. Bryfonski told lawmakers, speaking on behalf of the New Hampshire Police Chiefs Association. “It has caused further chaos and tragedy on our roads.”
Law enforcement opposition to marijuana legalization schemes has rarely swayed the House. The Senate, which has never passed a legalization bill, is a different story. The proposal has some support in that chamber, but it is not at all clear if it will be enough to pass it.
A stalwart supporter, Democratic Sen. Becky Whitley of Hopkinton, emphasized what polls have long shown: Voters here are in favor of legalization.
“Seventy-four percent of Granite Staters support legalization, 74%,” Whitley told the committee. “Wouldn’t they be elated if they got that kind of support at the polls?”
Governor Chris Sununu, who won his last re-election bid with 57% of the vote, is another potential hurdle for this bill.
Sununu has said that New Hampshire could eventually join neighboring states in legalizing marijuana, but has also repeatedly said he is hesitant because of the opioid and fentanyl epidemic in the state.
Earlier this month, Sununu and top security officials launched a new anti-drug effort called “No Safe Experience.”
Asked for comment on the bill on Wednesday, Sununu’s office indicated they do not expect any legalization plans to make it to the governor’s desk.
“He has failed the Senate repeatedly, in both Republican and Democratic years,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “With drug use and overdoses among teens on the rise, the legislature is not expected to see this as a time to ignore the data and move on.”
Meanwhile, Osborne said he discussed his proposal with Sununu but declined to characterize the conversation.
“I don’t want to comment on what the Governor may be thinking about this,” Osborne said.
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