New Hampshire lawmakers on Wednesday discussed a revised bill to legalize marijuana, with members sharing their perspectives on an amendment that they plan to take up for a vote next week.
The original legislation that’s sponsored by House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R) and Minority Leader Matt Wilhelm (D) was merged with concepts in a separate reform bill and stripped of provisions allowing home cultivation and annulling past cannabis convictions.
The revised version will go back before the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Liquor Subcommittee next week for a vote before potentially heading to the floor, the chair indicated.
This is the product of several work sessions held in recent weeks, including on Tuesday where members debated the merits of differing regulatory models and discussed what might represent a palatable compromise for the anti-legalization governor.
Rather than create an independent regulatory commission, the amended version would give that authority to the existing Liquor Commission, which would be renamed the Liquor and Cannabis Commission.
The panel also reviewed a change to add a mandate that testing be done by labs that are independent from companies that produce cannabis.
Advocates are disappointed that home grow and annulment provisions have been removed, but it was viewed as necessary for the legislation to have a chance of being enacted this session.
There is a separate home grow bill that’s also being considered by a different House committee, but its prospects are unclear at this stage of the session.
Chairman John Hunt (R) said at the Wednesday hearing that he’s interested in exploring additional changes to the legalization bill that’s advancing, including amendments to shift most or all of the tax burden to the cultivation level, rather than at the point of sale by consumers. He said that “in a perfect world,” that would be the strategy to ensure efficacy and to streamline auditing.
Members also raised logistic questions about renaming the Liquor Commission to incorporate the word “cannabis.” There seemed to be agreement that it may be unnecessary and that the commission should retain its current name “as a matter of palatability.”
“I’m not wedded anything yet, so let’s just all think about this so that when we come back on Tuesday, people can see where you’re at,” Hunt said, referring to the panel’s upcoming meeting next week.
Here’s what HB 639 as introduced would accomplish:
Adults 21 and older would be able to purchase, possess and gift up to four ounces of cannabis and also grow up to six plants, only three of which could be mature.
A governor-appointed Cannabis Commission would be established to regulate the market and issue marijuana business licenses.
There would also be a 13-member advisory board that would support the commission and gather public input on the cannabis law.
There would not be any statewide cap on the number of marijuana businesses that could be licensed.
The commission and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) would be responsible for coming up with a plan within 20 months of enactment to transition the state’s existing medical cannabis program and let adult-use retailers service medical marijuana patients if they get a therapeutic endorsement. Medical cannabis dispensaries could also apply to serve adult consumers if they demonstrate that patient access wouldn’t be compromised and that there wouldn’t be price hikes.
Adult-use marijuana sales would be subject to an 8.5 percent tax. That would not apply to medical cannabis products.
Eighty percent of marijuana tax revenue would support unfunded pension liabilities. One those are funded, the revenue would go to an education trust fund and property tax relief. Another 10 percent of revenue would be allocated for substance misused treatment. Localities with at least one marijuana retailer would get five percent, and the remaining five percent would support public safety agencies.
People with prior marijuana misdemeanor convictions or civil violations for cannabis possession would have their records automatically annulled.
Localities could limit or ban marijuana businesses from operating in their area. They could not ban delivery services, however.
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.
The legalization of possession and home cultivation would take effect immediately upon enactment, while regulators would have a year to promulgate rules to allow dispensaries to convert to dual retailers.
Marijuana companies could deduct business expenses from their taxes at the state level.
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The chairman, who recently introduced an earlier amendment to the legalization bill that received some pushback from members, said during the previous work session this week that after HB 639 advances out of his committee, lawmakers could then revisit a separate legalization bill, HB 544, which he feels stands a better chance of enactment.
HB 544, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Eaton (D), would create a system where the recreational marijuana market would consist of government-run stores, with the Liquor Commission tasked with regulating and administering the “cultivation, manufacture, testing, and retail sale of cannabis statewide.”
Meanwhile, several other legalization bills have also been filed this session, including barebones proposals to remove cannabis from the state’s controlled substances list and allow non-commercial home cultivation for adults.
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. 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.