The New Hampshire House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a bill to legalize marijuana through a state-run model. But pro-legalization advocates are sounding the alarm about the specifics of the proposal.
The legislation from Rep. Daryl Abbas (R) cleared the chamber in a 235-119 vote, despite facing resistance from people on both sides of the broader cannabis debate. The action comes about a month after the House passed a separate, non-commercial legalization bill that’s also elicited criticism.
The bill is “a compromise by many who favor recreational cannabis and many who like me that have traditionally opposed recreational cannabis,” Abbas said on the floor. It “creates a policy like no other state that works for and serves the people of New Hampshire.”
“The time for talking is over,” he said. It’s time for us together to take action and to deliver this.”
Under the proposal, which must still go before the House Finance Committee because of its fiscal components and then receive another floor vote before advancing to the Senate, adults 21 and older would be able to purchase cannabis from state-run dispensaries operated by the New Hampshire Liquor Commission. The could possess up to four ounces, but home cultivation would continue to be criminalized—one of the chief complaints from activists.
State regulators would have until October 1 to adopt rules for “the registration and regulation of cannabis establishments and cannabis cultivation facilities.” They would then have another two months to create regulations on issues like advertising, labeling, civil fines, security and THC limits.
Some advocates had hoped that the legislation would be defeated so that lawmakers could consider alternative reform proposals to create a legal marijuana market that more closely aligns with those established in other states.
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The notion of a state-run monopoly on cannabis generally doesn’t sit well with activists in the “Live Free or Die” state. Keeping penalties intact for things like home cultivation and public consumption aren’t earning Abbas, who chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, any points, either.
But in the lead-up to Wednesday’s vote, advocates urged their networks to reach out to their representatives and specifically explain how the proposed state-run model could ultimately make New Hampshire a target of federal prosecution. Having state employees sell marijuana and run the shops while cannabis remains federally illegal could invite a preemption case because of the direct and positive conflict between what would be the state law and federal policy.
“While we’re encouraged that the New Hampshire House of Representatives has vote to legalize cannabis for the fourth time, HB 1598 includes a poison pill and needs significant revision,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment.
“To end its status as an island of prohibition, New Hampshire needs a legalization law that actually works—not one that is federally preempted because it relies on state employees selling cannabis in violation of federal law,” she said.
Outside of advocacy circles, a bipartisan legislative commission that met more than two dozen times to review cannabis policy issues also determined that it’d be better to have a marijuana market with private retailers, rather than let the state assume control.
In general, many advocates have usually welcomed whatever reforms they can achieve in the fight to end prohibition. But in New Hampshire, they’ve grown particularly impatient with the GOP-controlled legislature, especially as it advances contentious legalization options while snubbing their preferred vehicles.
“This bill is deeply flawed, but there is some possibility that it can be improved in the next committee,” Matt Simon, director of public and government relations for Prime Alternative Treatment Centers of NH, told Marijuana Moment. “There has never been a more important time for Granite Staters to contact their elected officials and insist on a more thoughtful approach to legalization.”
The non-commercial legalization bill that passed the House last month is another example of legislation that’s fallen short of expectations. It would allow adults 21 and older to possess and give away up to three-fourths of an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants, but it wouldn’t permit cannabis commerce.
What made last month’s House vote to pass the home grow bill from Rep. Carol McGuire (R) all the more frustrating for activists was the fact that it advanced one day after the chamber narrowly rejected a separate, broader legalization proposal that would have regulated commercial production and sales.
Another bill to legalize possession of marijuana for adults 18 and older was also tabled during Wednesday’s floor session.
Meanwhile, three lawmakers—Reps. Joshua Adjutant (D), Renny Cushing (D) and Andrew Prout (R)—each filed separate bills to put marijuana legalization on the state’s 2022 ballot.
It would take a supermajority 60 percent vote in both chambers to advance any of the proposed constitutional amendments. But while that may be a tall task in the GOP-controlled legislature, if they’re successful, it would enable lawmakers to avoid a likely veto on statutory reform legislation from anti-legalization Gov. Chris Sununu (R).
Should legislators approve placing a constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis on the ballot, 67 percent of voters would then have to vote in favor for it to be enacted. Recent polling indicates that residents are ready for the reform, with three in four New Hampshirites favoring legalization.
While the governor remains opposed to adult-use legalization, advocates are encouraged that he signed a bill in August adding opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition for the state’s medical cannabis program and also allows out-of-state patients to access dispensaries.
In 2017, Sununu signed a bill decriminalizing marijuana possession in the Granite State, though he continues to oppose adding a legal commercial cannabis sales component.
In 2019, lawmakers sent a medical cannabis homegrow bill to Sununu’s desk, but he vetoed it.
Meanwhile, other nearby northeast states such as Maine and Vermont have already legalized recreational cannabis.