The New Hampshire House of Representatives has approved a bill to legalize marijuana for a second time this session, sending it to the Senate.
The proposal, which is being sponsored by Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R) and Minority Leader Matthew Wilhelm (D), cleared the chamber in a 272-109 vote on Thursday. Earlier in the day the body rejected an amendment that would have added separate legalization language to budget legislation.
HB 639, the bill that is now heading to the Senate, already got approval from the full House in February, but it needed to go to the Ways & Means Committee, where it was amended last month, before returning to the floor for final passage.
Osborne said in a press release that he is “pleased to see New Hampshire take a step toward relieving gangsters and thugs from control of this market, keeping dangerous untested products away from consumers, and protecting children from harmful age-inappropriate products.”
Wilhelm said that “with the decisive passage of HB 639, the New Hampshire House has sent a strong message that this is the year to legalize adult-use cannabis in the Granite State.
— Δmanda Bouldin (@BouldinAmanda) April 6, 2023
“Every year we fail to legalize marijuana, the state wastes valuable resources and ruins the lives of many young and poor Granite Staters by enforcing failed prohibition,” he said. “New Hampshire remains the only state in New England that has failed to legalize cannabis, while our neighbors benefit from increased revenue and their cannabis users benefit from safer testing and regulation of the product. Legalization of adult possession of small amounts of cannabis is the right thing to do for New Hampshire and we must get it done in 2023.”
Rep. Walter Spilsbury (R) said on the floor ahead of the vote that “the time is long past due to allow legal private enterprise in cannabis and cannabis products to develop successfully in the state of New Hampshire, subject to appropriate regulation and taxation.”
A majority report from the Ways & Means Committee says that it is hard to estimate tax revenues with confidence, but that members assume they will be “negligible” for the first two years and will build up over time.
“Judging from experiences of other states that have preceded us, prospects for growth are considerable and may rise sharply thereafter, offering some hope that this new source of state revenue can help alleviate the burden of education funding on real property taxes,” it says.
Earlier in the session, members of the Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee had spent weeks working the proposal over a series of meetings, going back and forth about a variety of provisions and making amendments to the original measure.
Here’s what HB 639 as amended would accomplish:
Adults 21 and older would be able to purchase, possess and gift up to four ounces of cannabis.
The newly renamed Liquor and Cannabis Commission would be responsible for regulating the marijuana market and issuing business licenses.
There would not be any statewide cap on the number of marijuana businesses that could be licensed.
Within 18 months of enactment, the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and commission would need to develop regulations allowing existing medical cannabis dispensaries to apply for dual licenses to start serving adult consumers.
Cannabis would be taxed in the amount of 12.5 percent of of products’ value in their final form at the wholesale level.
After the costs of legalization implementation are covered, $100,000 of revenue would fund data collection and reporting on health impacts of cannabis prohibition and cannabis regulation.
Of remaining funds after that, 50 percent would be disbursed to cities and towns to offset the education tax, 30 percent would be credited to the New Hampshire retirement system to offset its unfunded accrued liability, 10 percent or $25 million (whichever is less) would fund substance use programs, 5 percent would be used to hire and train drug recognition experts and 5 percent would support children’s behavioral health services.
Localities could limit or ban marijuana businesses from operating in their area.
There would be employment protections for state or local government workers who use marijuana off the job. Professional and occupational licenses couldn’t be denied or withdrawn because a person uses cannabis.
Marijuana companies could deduct business expenses from their taxes at the state level.
There are no provisions to allow home cultivation or annul prior cannabis convictions.
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“Year after year, legalization bills have died in the Senate after passing the House, leaving New Hampshire as the only state in New England that hasn’t legalized and regulated cannabis for adults,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said. “HB 639 is informed by the lessons of the 21 states that have already legalized cannabis and reflects the priorities and values of New Hampshire. It’s past time for the Granite State to live up to its ’Live Free’ motto and finally end their status as an island of prohibition by passing this bill.”
Last month, the New Hampshire House approved a separate bill to allow medical marijuana patients to grow their own plants for personal use.
The floor vote on home grow came about a week after the House approved a second cannabis legalization bill for the session, one that contains virtually no regulations or limitations on cannabis.
On Thursday, as the House was considering the budget, the same representative who sponsored the no-regulations bill that passed last month filed an amendment to add its provisions to the large-scale spending legislation.
“If we’re going to spend all these greenbacks today, shouldn’t we send some green back to our constituents?” Rep. Kevin Verville (R) said. “Isn’t it high time we put some common sense cannabis reform laws into place into this state? Isn’t it time that we do what the vast majority of our constituents in poll after poll after poll, year after year after year are begging us to do?”
“Please join me in sending some green back to our constituents by pressing the green button,” he said.
The amendment failed in a vote of 160-214, however.
While there’s optimism about the prospects of legalization finally moving in the Granite State this year, advocates still have work cut out for them.
Republicans held on to the both the House and Senate after last year’s election, and the latter chamber is where marijuana reform has faced its toughest obstacles in past sessions even as the House has repeatedly approved legalization bills.
The Senate rejected two House-passed reform bills last year, including one that would have created a non-commercial cannabis program and another providing for commerce under a state-run model.
In the Senate, there were some shifts that favor reform, however. For example, a Democratic senator who opposed legalization efforts was replaced by a Republican who voted in favor of ending prohibition during his time as a House member.
Gov. Chris Sununu (R), who was reelected last year, remains opposed to legalization—but his more recent comments on the issue seem to show a softening of his position. He said during a debate last year that reform “could be inevitable,” but he added that states need to “be patient about how you do it.”
After the Senate rejected two reform bills last year, the House included legalization language as an amendment to separate criminal justice-related legislation—but that was also struck down in the opposite chamber.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.