Connect with us

Politics

New Hampshire House Lawmakers Offer Senators A Marijuana Legalization Compromise At Conference Committee Meeting

Published

on

Seven New Hampshire lawmakers from the Senate and House of Representatives met in a conference committee on Tuesday in an effort reach a deal on marijuana legalization. The chambers have already passed separate versions of legislation to create a regulated cannabis market, and the two sides now have until Thursday to agree on a compromise bill to send to Gov. Chris Sununu (R).

Members from the House kicked off the meeting by offering to agree to the Senate-passed version of the bill so long as senators accepted four changes: lowering the proposed state surcharge on cannabis sales, providing licensing priority to existing medical marijuana businesses, adjusting rules around passengers consuming cannabis in vehicles and immediately decriminalizing up to two ounces of marijuana—the eventual personal possession limit—to compensate for a Senate change that delayed the formal legalization of possession until 2026.

“Ball’s in your court now,” Rep. John Hunt (R), one of four House members on the committee, said to his three Senate counterparts.

After some clarifying questions from the senators, however, Senate President Jeb Bradley (R) said he didn’t think there would be enough time for senators to confer amongst themselves and settle the matter on Tueday. He requested a recess, and the conference committee agreed to reconvene on Wednesday afternoon.

The panel’s job involves reconciling versions of the legislation that differ significantly on regulatory structure, criminal justice, licensing, personal possession and THC limits, tax rates, medical marijuana and other issues. The new offer by House lawmakers winnows down the areas of disagreement significantly.

Though it’s yet to be seen how senators respond to the House offer, some legalization proponents saw the development as heartening.

“Today’s committee of conference meeting was encouraging,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment after the meeting. “I’m hopeful conferees will negotiate revisions that can get legalization past the finish line and end the Live Free State’s embarrassing status as an island of prohibition.”

Of the four proposed House changes to the Senate version of the bill, one would simply decrease franchise fees—which effectively function as taxes—on marijuana purchases, lowering the proposed rate from 15 percent to 12.5 percent. As in the Senate-passed bill, the new proposal would still apply that surcharge to medical marijuana purchases.

Another House-proposed change would emphasize that priority should be given during licensing to applicants with cannabis industry experience within New Hampshire, then secondarily to entities with out-of-state experience. The amended language would advantage applicants with prior experience “in accordance with, first, the laws of the state of New Hampshire or, second, another state.”

Consuming cannabis in a car would remain illegal for drivers. For passengers, a proposed change to the Senate version of the bill would prohibit only smoking and vaping marijuana, not other forms of consumption.

“As I understood, this was the intention—to not have secondhand smoking affect the driver,” explained Rep. Jason Osborne (R), whose name is on the House amendment as obtained by Marijuana Moment in draft form.

The bulk of the five-page document deals with increasing the state’s existing decriminalization limit from three quarters of an ounce to two ounces—a change that would take effect immediately. The amendment is intended by House lawmakers to compensate for a Senate change to the bill that delayed the legalization of personal possession of marijuana until 2026, when a regulated retail market would be up and running. By contrast, the earlier House-passed version legalized possession upon the bill’s enactment into law.

“What I found to be a large source of objection among House members is that they were looking forward to on day one, legalizing up to two ounces,” Osborne said. “Pulling the rug out from under that idea really took the wind out of the sails of being able to get it passed in the House.”

All seven members of the conference committee need to agree on a compromise ahead of Thursday’s deadline in order to send the legislation back to both chambers for up-or-down votes, then potentially to the governor’s desk. A single vote of opposition by a member of the panel would mean the measure’s demise.

From the Senate, the conference committee includes Sens. Bradley, Lang and Shannon Chandley (D). On the House side, members are Reps. Hunt, Osborne, Anita Burroughs (D) and Rep. Carrie Spier (D).

It’s not immediately clear whether the changes proposed by the House negotiators on the conference committee would have majority support in the chamber if a compromise bill returns to the floor.

On the Senate side, Bradley himself has been vocally opposed to legalization during the legislative session, though he’s said repeatedly that if the reform has the votes to pass, he wants to make what he sees as improvements to the underlying bill.

But while Bradley could singlehandedly kill the bill at this point, his colleague, Lang, told Marijuana Moment last week that he expected the Senate president to ultimately support the Senate-passed version. It’s less clear how he’ll respond to the new offer.

If the body ultimately fails to reach consensus, the reform could be delayed indefinitely. Sununu’s term ends in January, and he isn’t seeking reelection. The leading candidates on the GOP side of the governor’s race say they oppose legalization.

Sununu, meanwhile, has indicated he’d support the Senate version of the bill but would oppose the measure as passed by the House. He said last month, after the Senate approved its version of the bill, that if the House OK’d the Senate changes, he’d sign the legislation.

“I think the Senate version is OK,” Sununu told NH Journal. “They put some other stuff in there that I wasn’t necessarily looking for, but they’re not deal breakers.”

But if House lawmakers “want to make significant changes,” the governor warned at the time, “then it’s not going to pass. It’s that easy.”

An earlier version of the legislation, HB 1633, passed the House in April, though a number of senators had already indicated they intended to make major changes once it arrived in their chamber. Their subsequent actions—including a committee amendment with changes from Bradley and others—shifted its core regulatory approach made a number of other adjustments.

Last week, however, House lawmakers then roundly rejected the Senate amendments, voting instead for the creation of the conference committee.

As passed by the Senate, the bill would allow 15 franchise stores to open statewide. Though stores would be privately run, the government would oversee operations. Purchases would incur a 15 percent “franchise fee”—effectively a tax—that would apply to both adult-use and medical marijuana purchases. That rate would fall to 12.5 percent under Tuesday’s proposal from House lawmakers.

Marijuana possession under the Senate version of the bill wouldn’t become legal until 2026, once the state’s licensed market is up and running. The House version, by contrast, would have legalized possession immediately—a change critics said would fuel the illicit market. That disagreement led to the proposal in the conference committee to increase the state’s decriminalization limit, which effectively reduces penalties for personal possession until legalization in 2026. Carrying up to two ounces of marijuana would be a $100 fine.

The proposal would limit each municipality to only a single cannabis retail establishment unless it’s home to more than 50,000 people, though only two cities in the state, Manchester and Nashua, meet that threshold. Local voters would also need to pre-approve the industry in order for businesses to open in that jurisdiction.

Home cultivation of cannabis for personal use would remain illegal, and the state’s Liquor Commission would have the authority to enforce that provision.

Smoking or vaping marijuana in public would be a violation on the first offense and an misdemeanor for second or subsequent offenses within five years, a charge that could carry jail time. Consuming cannabis in other forms in public—for example, drinking an THC-infused beverage—would carry no punishment, unlike open container rules around alcohol.

For someone driving a car, the bill would have outlawed consumption of cannabis by any means by any driver or passenger of a vehicle. The change proposed by House lawmakers reduces the scope of that prohibition, exempting passengers who consume in a manner that does not affect the driver.

Driving under the influence of marijuana would remain a crime under both versions of the bill.

By contrast, the version of the bill passed by the House in April would legalize through a so-called “agency store” model, in which the state would oversee a system of privately run stores, with strict limits on marketing and advertising. That version also includes a higher personal possession limit of four ounces and a lower, 12 percent fee on purchases. Further, medical marijuana would be been exempt from the state surcharge, and personal possession would become legal immediately.

The House bill, like the Senate version, would not allow home cultivation of cannabis.

Most legalization and criminal justice advocates preferred the House bill, though they did welcome some licensing provision changes in the Senate version.

Going in to Tuesday’s meeting, even some of the bill’s supporters predicted the bicameral panel would fail to reach a compromise. Others, however, held out hope there was a way to reach consensus.

“You know, right now, the odds aren’t great,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Erica Layon (R), told Marijuana Moment ahead of the conference committee meeting. “I’m gonna go into it optimistic, but I don’t really expect much to come of it.”

Sen. Daryl Abbas (R), who chaired a state commission on legalization last year and introduced a sweeping Senate floor amendment last month that made major changes to Layon’s bill, also told Marijuana Moment he was “not optimistic” that the bill “would survive a committee of conference.”

The looming election has added a sense of urgency to the proceedings. Voters in November will not only elect House and Senate lawmakers but also will pick a replacement for Sununu, who isn’t seeking reelection. Two top Republican gubernatorial contenders, former U.S. Rep. Kelly Ayotte and former state Sen. Chuck Morse, have already said they would oppose the reform if elected.

“I don’t think legalizing marijuana is the right direction for our state,” Ayotte said late last month.

The leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate meanwhile, Joyce Craig, sent out a press release in favor of legalization last  week.

“It’s time for New Hampshire to catch up with the rest of New England and finally legalize marijuana,” said Craig, a three-term mayor of Manchester whose last term ended in January. “We need a system that encourages competition and creates revenue that we can invest in our state. We are missing out on millions of dollars that could go towards affordable housing, strengthening our public schools, and recovery programs, all while developing an industry that would create good-paying jobs and give adults a freedom that all of our neighbors already enjoy.”

—
Marijuana Moment is tracking more than 1,500 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
—

New Hampshire lawmakers worked extensively on marijuana reform issues last session and attempted to reach a compromise to enact legalization through a multi-tiered system that would include state-controlled shops, dual licensing for existing medical cannabis dispensaries and businesses privately licensed to individuals by state agencies. The legislature ultimately hit an impasse on the complex legislation.

Bicameral lawmakers also convened the state commission tasked with studying legalization and proposing a path forward last year, though the group ultimately failed to arrive at a consensus or propose final legislation.

The Senate defeated a more conventional House-passed legalization bill last year, HB 639, despite its bipartisan support.

Last May, the House defeated marijuana legalization language that was included in a Medicaid expansion bill. The Senate also moved to table another piece of legislation that month that would have allowed patients and designated caregivers to cultivate up to three mature plants, three immature plants and 12 seedlings for personal therapeutic use.

After the Senate rejected the reform bills in 2022, the House included legalization language as an amendment to separate criminal justice-related legislation—but that was also struck down in the opposite chamber.

Read the full text of the proposed amendment by House lawmakers on the marijuana legalization conference committee below:

Marijuana And Hemp Businesses At Odds Over Consumable Cannabinoid Ban In House Farm Bill

Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
Become a patron at Patreon!

Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.

Advertisement

Marijuana News In Your Inbox

Get our daily newsletter.

Support Marijuana Moment

Marijuana News In Your Inbox

 

Get our daily newsletter.