The New Hampshire House of Representatives has approved another bill to legalize marijuana in the state—except this one contains no regulations or limitations on cannabis.
About a month after the House passed a comprehensive legalization, taxation and regulation measure that’s being sponsored by bipartisan leaders, members on Thursday took up the simpler legislation to remove marijuana from the state’s listed of banned substances.
The chamber first voted, 210-160, to overrule the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which had deemed the measure from from Kevin Verville (R) “inexpedient to legislate” last month. Members then approved the bill in a voice vote, sending it to the Senate.
Verville said ahead of the vote that, over his years in office, he’s come to learn that the legislature likes “simple” and “short” bills.
“When bills get complicated and they get long and they get confused, people vote against them,” he said. “This is the shortest, easiest way to affect the change that the majority of our constituents want—and that is the legalization of cannabis.”
Rep. Jodi Newell (D) recognized that lawmakers “have multiple bills attempting to legalize cannabis” this session.
“We’ve been at this for years and still struggling to get it done,” she said. “The people of New Hampshire favor legalization. So far, we have failed them.”
The simple legalization bill would remove marijuana from the state’s controlled substances list and strike multiple provisions in statute that refer to criminal penalties for cannabis-related offenses.
It would also add language to make it so people under 18 who possess marijuana would be subject to a substance misuse assessment. People between the ages of 18 and 21 would face a violation for simple possession, effectively decriminalizing the substance for that age group. Public consumption would also be a violation.
The legislation would allow people with past cannabis convictions or pending cases as of the effective date to have their records annulled.
State laws restricting the use of an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards at dispensaries, punishing negligent storage of cannabis-infused products and blocking pharmacists from dispensing marijuana would be repealed.
During Thursday’s floor debate, Rep. Terry Roy (R) said that he would be voting against the proposal primarily because marijuana is federally illegal, and so legislators need to pursue reform “very carefully, very thoughtfully and in a way that will not draw attention to the fact that we are flouting federal law.”
While the bill was deemed inexpedient to legislate in committee, some members voted for that designation despite supporting legalization “in principle” because they prefer the separate comprehensive reform measure that the House passed, according to the majority report.
“These members felt that as New Hampshire is the lone state in New England that still criminalizes cannabis, there is a high likelihood that New Hampshire citizens who want to obtain and use cannabis products, probably already are,” the report says. “They felt that if that is the case, by keeping it criminal we are accomplishing nothing other than exposing more citizens to potential criminal justice system involvement.”
“These members also expressed that by legalizing it, there would be a better chance that the products being used would be safer than that which is available on the black market,” it continues. “That being said, these members believe other legislation that is before other committees is the best vehicle to accomplish this.”
Opponents of legalization argued that cannabis represented a public health and safety risk.
The committee minority that voted against the inexpedient to legislate designation said they believe “cannabis should be legal for adult use, that its health impact is much less detrimental than that of alcohol, which is legal over the age of 21, and that the lifelong harm of criminalization far outweighs that of responsible consumption.”
Now eyes are turned to the Senate to see what type of vehicle, if any, members ultimately decide to advance.
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The commercial legalization bill from Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R) and Minority Leader Matthew Wilhelm (D) would be the preference of many advocates, as it would provide regulated access, generate tax revenue and support various agencies and programs in the state.
While the measure passed the House, it was then sent to the Ways & Means Committee, where it must advance and then go back to the floor before potentially being transmitted to the Senate.
Osborne spoke about next steps for the reform during a committee hearing on Monday and described the types of compromises that have gone into the proposal throughout its legislative journey.
“I’m sure you know that the House routinely passes some kind of bill like this every year and the other body routinely shuts it down,” the majority leader said. “We’d like to get this done all at once, once and for all.”
An executive session for a committee vote was scheduled for Wednesday, but the chairman said on Monday that members would first hold a work session to get feedback from state agencies. That’s now been scheduled for next week.
To increase the bill’s chances of passage in the Senate, sponsors deliberately excluded annulment and home cultivation provisions. But a separate measure that advanced out of the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee last week would allow medical cannabis patients to grow their own plants.
That bill from Rep. Wendy Thomas (D), which was placed on the consent calendar for House floor consideration without a minority report, would let patients and designated caregivers cultivate up to three mature plants, three immature plants and 12 seedlings.
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.
The non-commercial legalization measure that was defeated had previously passed the House under Democratic control in 2020 but was defeated in the Senate at the committee stage.
Lawmakers also filed separate bills to put marijuana legalization on the state’s 2022 ballot, but the House rejected them.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.