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New Hampshire Lawmakers At Odds Over Crafting Marijuana Legalization Bill That Can Pass And Win Governor’s Support



As the sponsor of a bill to legalize marijuana in New Hampshire that has already won initial House approval works to tailor her proposal to better fit the demands of a skeptical Gov. Chris Sununu (R), a senator who led an ill-fated study commission on cannabis legalization last year is offering an alternative legalization plan.

At a hearing of a House Finance Committee panel on Wednesday, lawmakers considered not only the new changes from the legalization bill’s sponsor, Rep. Erica Layon (R), but also a franchise-based alternative put forward by Sen. Daryl Abbas (R).

Both sets of changes are designed to build support among Senate leaders as well as the governor—whom lawmakers referred to repeatedly at the hearing.

“We need a bill that gets 201 House votes, 13 Senate votes and gets signed by one person,” said Rep. Joe Sweeney (R), asking Layon of her bill: “This gets signed by that one person?”

“Yes,” the bill’s sponsor responded. “I believe that it can, and I will continue talking with him through next week and try to get him to have a firm statement of yes.”

“Have you talked to him about this proposal?” Sweeney asked.

“I’ve been trying,” Layon replied. “I hope that I can get a chance to actually speak with him. I’ve been doing my best. If anybody can help me get in with him, I would appreciate that.”

Though members of House panel took no action on the bill on Wednesday—with the text of the proposed amendments not being made widely available prior to the hearing—they spent more than two hours discussing the policy change, which the state’s legislature has now mulled for multiple years.

The discussion began with Layon laying out her latest proposed changes to the bill, HB 1633, including a 15-store limit on retailers statewide and new authority for the secretary of state to limit lobbying by licensed cannabis businesses. Those adjustments are meant to more closely align the bill with a set of requirements issued late last year by Sununu, which some members of the state commission blamed for their inability to arrive at consensus on legalization last year.

“In good faith, I have been working closer and closer and closer to those guidelines,” Layon said at the hearing, “implementing as many items as were found in the work of the commission and trying to get a good bill that can actually make it all the way to law.”

Last year, the state study commission was convened by lawmakers to explore how New Hampshire could legalize marijuana through a system of state-run stores—a novel model that was supported by the governor. Led by Abbas, the body pivoted to consider a franchise model—under which the state would oversee day-to-day operations of private licensees—but members ultimately failed to agree on recommended legislation.

“We had actually charged that commission with coming out with legislation,” said Layon, who was the chair of the committee last session that created the study group. “That commission failed to produce legislation to be introduced to the House.”

“I never intended this bill to represent the commission’s work,” she added of her measure, explaining that she expected members of the commission would introduce a bill of their own this session, though that didn’t happen.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Abbas told the panel that Layon’s bill in its current form wouldn’t fly in the Senate.

“That draft does not have support of the state Senate,” he told members of the House panel. Of 24 members of the Senate, Abbas said, Layon’s bill has the support of “I would say 10 at best.”

“This has been something we’ve worked on for multiple years,” he added, “and it’s really a compromise among several individuals.”

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Abbas’s proposed alternative, which he declined to take credit for drafting, would instead return to a franchise model. He said his alternative would pass the Senate with at least 13 or 14 votes.

A number of other issues were raised during the committee hearing, including how to punish people caught consuming marijuana in public. Both Layon’s current bill and Abbas’s proposal would allow prosecutors to seek jail time for repeat offenders—a provision that justice advocates have called counterproductive.

“Under existing law, if you were smoking in public and had less than three quarters of an ounce,” said Devon Chaffee, executive director for ACLU of New Hampshire, “the highest penalty that you can face is a Class B misdemeanor. Under the bill as passed by the House, you could potentially face jail time, which would be a significant increase in penalty, and that would have an associated cost to the state.”

Abbas, for his part, has maintained that smoking in public is an “egregious” offense that should be punished harshly.

“To get caught smoking in public is extremely difficult,” he said, “unless you literally just go out of your way and smoke freely like it’s not a big deal.”

Other issues that remain sticking points for lawmakers include the cost of hiring enough officials to regulate the new market, how to protect the state from federal enforcement around marijuana and how to transition oversight of the existing medical marijuana system to the state Liquor Commission.

The Finance Committee plans to come back and vote on amendments to the bill as early as next week. After that, the legislation will need to receive one more vote on the House floor before potentially heading to the Senate.

Sununu, for his part, has said that while he believes legalization in the Granite State is “inevitable,” he’s also “not a huge believer” in the idea.

Last year the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee, led by Rep. John Hunt (R), worked extensively on marijuana reform issues during the 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. But lawmakers reached an impasse on the complex legislation, which was being considered following Sununu’s surprise announcement that he backed state-run legalization.

Meanwhile the Senate defeated a more conventional legalization bill, HB 639, despite its bipartisan support.

In May, the House separately defeated a different marijuana legalization amendment that was being proposed as part of a Medicaid expansion bill.

After the Senate rejected 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.

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Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.

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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.


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