A New Hampshire commission charged with drafting a bill to legalize cannabis sales through state-run stores began digging into possible legislative language on Tuesday, discussing issues such as how existing medical marijuana dispensaries would be integrated into the new system, how products would be tested for potency and safety and how to avoid interfering with existing hemp and CBD markets.
The 19-person panel also heard from three opponents to marijuana legalization, although the commission chair, Sen. Daryl Abbas (R), had to repeatedly remind speakers that the body’s core goal is to craft a proposal that would legalize cannabis in New Hampshire and that witness testimony needed to focus on shaping, rather than stopping, the policy change.
It was the fifth meeting of the Commission to Study With the Purpose of Proposing Legalization, State Controlled Sales of Cannabis and Cannabis Products—a body created through legislation in August. The group is charged with considering legalization’s possible impacts on New Hampshire and crafting recommended legislation by December 1. Lawmakers would then take up the bill in the coming 2024 session.
After hearing comments from the legalization opponents, members on Tuesday began a line-by-line review of a 37-page draft bill that was circulated by Abbas’s office. The senator described the document as “kind of a combination of several bills” that lawmakers have considered in past sessions.
When Abbas’s office sent Marijuana Moment a copy of the draft bill last week, a staffer emphasized that “this working draft is extremely fluid and nothing is official by any means.”
Nearly every one of the commission’s meetings so far have gone more slowly than planned, and Tuesday’s meeting was no different. When members broke for the day, they’d managed to get through not quite five pages of the 37-page draft bill and were still in the measure’s definitions section.
Most of the adjustments the commission discussed making were relatively minor. For example, panelists noted that the bill’s definition of “cannabis products” could theoretically interfere with businesses already offering CBD-infused beverages and topicals. They talked about amending that definition to more clearly state that hemp products, including CBD, fall outside the scope of the bill.
Members also discussed whether the sale of cannabis accessories, such as pipes and rolling papers, would be subject to state cannabis taxes. Most felt that such purchases should not be taxed, whether sold by licensed cannabis stores or other establishments, such as convenience stores. A provision of the draft bill suggested that a state license would be needed to sell marijuana accessories, but the panel struck that line.
How to test cannabis products also came up at Tuesday’s meeting, although the panel did not make any specific changes to the draft language.
Perhaps the most controversial topic panelists discussed at the meeting was how to handle the state’s existing medical dispensaries, known in New Hampshire as alternative treatment centers (ATCs). Currently the state’s seven licensed ATCs must be organized as not-for-profit businesses, but the commission is proceeding toward an adult-use system that would sell to consumers through a state-controlled model.
The scheme would allow the state to handle administration and marketing of adult-use marijuana while leaving responsibility for retail operations to private owners. It’s intended to allow the state more control over the look and feel of stores without taking on the burden and legal liability of actually running them.
Expectations for the bill have already changed considerably in recent months. The panel was initially formed to consider state-run stores, a novel model supported by Gov. Chris Sununu (R), but last month members turned to consideration of the alternative, franchise-style system.
Officials have likened the model to McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts. Adult-use shops would be privately owned, for-profit businesses, but they would be overseen by the state government.
While the draft legislation would let ATCs reorganize as for-profit entities and begin selling to adults, the details of that transition are still muddy. Panelists at Tuesday’s meeting raised a variety of possible paths forward, for example requiring ATCs to have separate counters for medical and adult-use products or prohibiting colocation of medical and recreational stores at the same facility. Also at issue is which state governmental body should regulate medical marijuana: the Department of Health and Human Services, which currently oversees the medical program, or a renamed Liquor and Cannabis Commission, which lawmakers contemplate running the adult-use market.
For patients and treatment centers, the issues loom large, said Matt Simon, the director of public and government relations at medical marijuana provider GraniteLeaf Cannabis.
Simon, who testified at the hearing, told Marijuana Moment in a follow-up interview that he wants to see expanded access to medical products but thinks it’s important patients have access to quality information, too.
“Our position is nuanced,” he said. From a patient perspective, he said, it would be helpful to expand the sale of medical products beyond the states seven licensed ATCs. On the other hand, adult-use shops might lack the necessary resources or knowledge to help guide medical patients to appropriate products.
“If we could expand that, that’d be terrific,” Simon said. “The only question is how to provide education and support when patients are not buying it at ATCs, particularly when they’re making their first purchases.”
(Disclosure: Simon supports Marijuana Moment’s work via a monthly Patreon pledge.)
In terms of who should regulate ATCs, written testimony submitted jointly by GraniteLeaf Cannabis, Sanctuary ATC and Temescal Wellness said that while there could be advantages to having medical and adult-use marijuana under the same regulatory umbrella, it’s not uncommon—and may actually be reasonable—to have medical products overseen by a health agency.
The companies note that convenience stores in New Hampshire, by comparison, might report to several different entities based on the products they sell.
“We believe the Therapeutic Cannabis Program and the adult-use franchise model can coexist in New Hampshire with two separate regulatory authorities if the law and rules allow the ATCs to transition smoothly and serve both markets without facing unnecessary burdens,” the ATCs said.
Very few changes were in fact made to Abbas’s draft legislation during the meeting, but some members were tasked with incorporating feedback into updated provisions by the body’s next scheduled meeting on November 3.
One matter members said they also plan to revisit during the next meeting is personal possession limits. The draft legislation would allow possession of up to four ounces of cannabis flower, for example, though some members proposed cutting that limit to two ounces.
Testimony from those who appeared in opposition to marijuana legalization may also influence the shape of the final bill. Amy Turncliff, a consultant who described herself as a PhD in neurobiology and a “fourth generation property holder in New Hampshire,” warned that legalization would put adult and youth consumers at risk of developing psychotic disorders.
Abbas pressed Turncliff on how to craft legislation “in a way that would mitigate those negative impacts,” which Turncliff said was impossible.
“I’m going to be honest, I don’t think you can mitigate them,” she said. “Those of us who are public health advocates do believe that there will be a reckoning down the road… Maybe a decade or more from now, all of this is going to come tumbling out.”
Ultimately she suggested a handout be given to consumers that warns of the health risks of cannabis use. Asked by Abbas what should be prioritized on product warning labels, Turncliff said warnings about pregnancy, psychosis and other health risks were likely the most important things to highlight, though regulators could also require rotating warning labels that carry different information.
Omar Shaw, a doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital, noted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved cannabinoid-based pharmaceuticals for limited uses such as severe seizure disorders. “Once you get away from these conditions,” he said, “it’s very hard to see the benefits overall compared to the potential side effects it has.”
Shaw said he would support raising the minimum age for cannabis purchases in New Hampshire to 25, at which point brain development has typically slowed. “If it was up to me, I’d ban alcohol and nicotine,” he added.
Scott Gagnon, a Maine-based anti-legalization advocate, told the panel that it’s essential that state lawmakers take cannabis issues seriously, regardless of what sort of bill the commission recommends.
“You can put forward the best legislation that’s ever happened in this country when it comes to cannabis legalization,” he warned, “but the work after it is going to be just as important to protect what to protect what you put in there.”
During public comment at Tuesday’s meeting, Jim Riddle, a farmer in Hillsboro, brought up a recent survey of New Hampshire farmers who were asked their opinions on marijuana. About 87 percent said they support legalization and 78 percent said they’re interested in growing, Riddle noted, and about 70 percent would like to see an allowance for direct sales to consumers.
Ensuring broad access to legal retailers would also would help combat unregulated activity, he said: “The more barriers to being a legal player, the more you’re favoring the illegal market.”
Regardless of what’s in the bill the commission ultimately recommends, lawmakers during next year’s legislative session could amend various provisions or overhaul the proposal altogether.
In addition to generally studying the feasibility of a state-run cannabis model, the commission is specifically tasked with looking at the possibility of drafting legislation that:
- Allows the state to control distribution and access
- Keeps marijuana away from kids and out of schools
- Controls the marketing and messaging of the sale of marijuana
- Prohibits “marijuana miles” or the over-saturation of marijuana retail establishments
- Empowers municipalities to choose to limit or prohibit marijuana retail establishments
- Reduces instances of multi-drug use
- Does not impose an additional tax so as to remain competitive
At a meeting earlier this month, a panelist from the state attorney general’s office said the unique approach could create federal liability.
“The probability or extent of those liabilities is unknown to the attorney general’s office,” said Myles Matteson, a senior assistant attorney general who heads the office’s criminal justice bureau, but “any state-controlled or state-managed system certainly creates liabilities. There’s no doubt about that.”
House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee Chairman John Hunt (R), a member of the commission, worked extensively on marijuana reform issues this year and attempted to reach a compromise on legislation 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.
Hunt’s House panel, however, 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 the a conventional legalization bill, HB 639, despite its bipartisan support.
The underlying commission legislation that the governor signed into law with the legalization study provisions would also remove an existing requirement that pain patients try opioid-based treatments first before receiving a medical cannabis recommendation for their condition.
It also includes provisions to clarify that the state’s hemp law is not intended to authorize the sale of hemp-derived intoxicating products, such as delta-8 THC.
In May, the House separately defeated a different marijuana legalization amendment that was being proposed as part of a Medicaid expansion bill.
Also, the Senate 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 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.
Here’s the full draft legislation that was discussed at Tuesday’s meeting: