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New Hampshire Senate Panel Amends House-Passed Marijuana Legalization Bill, Sending It To Final Floor Vote



A Senate panel in New Hampshire has narrowly approved a House-passed bill that would legalize marijuana, though members first adopted a handful of amendments from Senate President Jeb Bradley (R), who told colleagues that while he opposes the legalization proposal, he feels an “obligation to try to make it better.”

The legislation, HB 1633, now returns to the full Senate, where members made a number of major changes last week before advancing it on a 14–9 vote. The body is expected to consider on either Wednesday or Thursday whether to approve the latest committee changes, and at least two floor amendments are also expected.

Bradley indicated he believes the full Senate may indeed pass the legalization bill, and he wants to give opponents options.

“What I hope is that with these changes that make it better, those of us who support the legalization of recreational marijuana will be able to vote for ‘ought to pass as amended,’ and those of us that don’t support it will be able to vote for the committee amendment that makes it better.”

Among the amendments adopted in committee on Tuesday, one adjustment from Bradley would decrease the amount of marijuana adults could possess from four ounces down to two, while another would delay the proposed legalization of personal marijuana possession until after the licensed market is up and running.

Another committee-approved change from the Senate president would increase penalties for knowingly or unknowingly selling marijuana to minors. Sen. Cindy Rosenwald (D), who opposed that amendment, pointed out that it would create stiffer penalties than what’s currently on the books in New Hampshire with regard to sales of alcohol to minors.

Other Bradley amendments would add $250,000 in funding for the state Liquor Commission to hire consultants to develop rules, require mandatory training about cannabis use disorder for industry licensees and employees, expand the panel of contaminants that laboratory testing would need to screen for, change how municipal elections around marijuana are handled and sunset the Cannabis Control Commission after five years.

An amendment from Sen. Howard Pearl (R), meanwhile, would require the state to ensure that at least five cannabis cultivation licenses are “awarded to independent growers with demonstrated experience in New Hampshire agriculture,” he said. “I want to make sure that there’s a piece of this that remains in New Hampshire and is done the New Hampshire way.”

Bradley called the amendment “a good idea” and said it would ensure “a diversity of cultivation entities.”

A separate amendment from Sen. Tim Lang (R) would increase the amount of tax revenue going to law enforcement. As Rosenwald explained for Lang, who was not present, “We’ve distributed quite a bit of money to drug treatment” under the current proposal. “There was a lot of discussion on the floor about how 10 percent for law enforcement was not enough.”

Other adjustments would make minor clarifications to THC limits on marijuana products, clarify that police and law enforcement job applicants could still be penalized for cannabis use and ensure a “prevention specialist who is currently certified by the Prevention Certification Board of New Hampshire,” an all-volunteer credentialing organization, sits on the Cannabis Control Commission.

Changes from more than a dozen amendments approved by the committee will be rolled into a single Senate Finance Committee amendment for senators to consider on the floor this week.

If the Senate approves the underlying bill—with or without the committee amendments—it would return to the House, where representatives could approve the measure in its revised form, reject it or send the proposal to a bicameral conference committee to hammer out a compromise.

Attempts at compromise, however, could actually lessen the bill’s chance at passage. Senate President Bradley, who has previously said he doesn’t want the bill to leave the Senate, could stack the conference committee with prohibitionists in an effort to scuttle the reform.

Bradley said at Tuesday’s hearing that he planned to bring at least one additional floor amendment later this week, and he said another likely amendment “will be debated on whether we should annul convictions.”

“I don’t think that will probably, at the end of the day, have the votes to pass,” he said of the expected annulments proposal. “I will vote for it, but my priority has always been looking forward, not looking backward, and ensuring that if it’s going to pass, that the best product comes out of this building as possible.”

The current proposal is the product of months of work, including by members of a state commission on legalization, which late last year failed at its charge to develop a legislative proposal, as well as by the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Erica Layon (R), who built bipartisan support for her measure in that chamber while being spurned by the governor’s office and Senate representatives.

Gov. Chris Sununu, a fellow Republican, has long been skeptical of legalization but has recently said he would sign a bill that meets certain conditions.

In recent weeks he’s repeated that he’ll only consider signing the bill if lawmakers follow strict criteria laid out by his office, including limiting the number of retail stores to 15 statewide.

“Fundamentally I don’t really love this idea anyway,” Sununu said earlier this month, but he explained he sees legalization as “inevitable.”

Earlier this month, the Judiciary Committee became the first-ever Senate panel to sign off on a marijuana legalization proposal, approving it on a narrow, 3–2 vote. Before advancing the measure, the committee approved a striking amendment from Sen. Daryl Abbas (R), who chaired last year’s state commission.

That amendment increased a proposed 10 percent surcharge on marijuana purchases in the House-passed version of the bill to 15 percent, and it extended the fee to include medical marijuana purchases. It also increased proposed penalties for public consumption of marijuana to include possible jail time and shifted the legislation’s proposed regulatory scheme to a novel, state-run franchise system under which the state’s Liquor Commission would oversee the look, feel and operations of retail stores.

In its current version, the proposal would allow 15 franchise stores to open statewide. It would limit each municipality to only a single cannabis retail establishment unless it’s home to more than 50,000 people.

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.

The legalization proposal passed out of the House a month ago amid warnings from Abbas and some other senators that the bill would be dead on arrival in their chamber. Sununu similarly said he wouldn’t sign the bill in its House-passed form.

As passed by the House, the bill would have legalized through a so-called “agency store” model that Abbas and others in the Senate opposed. House lawmakers rejected an earlier amendment that included many revisions later made by Abbas, opting for the agency store model offered by Layon, the bill’s sponsor.

“I think this is an excellent bill,” Layon told colleagues ahead of the House vote, “and quite frankly I think it’s time for us to go ahead and vote on this bill, and let the other body deal with it.”

Layon, however, has warned senators not to take House lawmakers’ votes for granted if they decided to make major changes to her bill.

“I’m concerned that the bill as passed by the Senate is a step backwards for Granite Staters who use cannabis,” she told Marijuana Moment in a text message last week. “Senator Abbas’s insistence on Day One enforcement actions should make legalization proponents wary of the details of this bill.”

“I already know of 50 Democrats who are going to nonconcur, and I think that’s the tip of the iceberg,” Rep. Anita Burroughs (D), a key sponsor of the bill, told the New Hampshire Bulletin on Monday.

“I’ve been fighting for this for a lot of years, and I never imagined a day where I would vote against a bill that I’ve been sponsoring and working on,” she added. “But it’s like a bridge too far.”

A Republican sponsor in the House, Rep. J.R. Hoell, also said he plans to vote against the bill as revised by the Senate. He told the Bulletin that the pivot to the franchise model would create a near monopoly in the industry, and he opposes the other chamber’s removal of provisions allowing adults to grow their own cannabis at home,

“I think a free market does a better job of managing sales and cost distribution,” Hoell said, “and it solves problems that government can’t even anticipate. And this is definitely not a free-market model at this point.”

Sununu, however, has praised the Senate changes, though he hasn’t said whether he’d sign the amended bill.

“It’s a model which ensures that the retail sales are ultimately controlled by the state,” he said at a press conference last week.

“Just to be clear, if they said we’re just going to have the stores run by state employees like they are with the liquor store, that would be fine, too,” the governor said. “So our franchise model is an alternative to that that is also acceptable, as long as all the other stipulations of control are put in.”

Though advocates have said they’re pleased to see New Hampshire make progress toward legalization, they’re also concerned about some of the changes made by Abbas and the Senate.

ACLU of New Hampshire and other civil rights advocates, for example, have opposed the increased penalties for public consumption, warning that the more punitive would lead to disproportionately severe and lasting consequences and could end up costing the state more money because it will be required to provide defense lawyers for defendants who cannot afford one.

Existing medical marijuana patients, advocates and dispensary operators have also opposed the bill’s tax on medical cannabis products. Critics have also complained its rules are unclear around how dispensaries, known as alternative treatment centers (ATCs), could participate in the new market.

Tim Egan, a former state representative and an advisory board member of the New Hampshire Cannabis Association, a pro-cannabis industry group, told the Bulletin that he has mixed feelings on the current proposal.

“I want to see this bill get passed,” he said in an interview before the Senate floor vote. “Do I like most of the things in it? No.”

He added: “Do I want this bill to fail? No. But if it does, I’m not going to cry about it.”

With only several months left in Sununu’s term, observers are also weighing how the governor’s potential replacements might greet legalization. At least one possible successor, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R)—one of a handful of gubernatorial candidates that’s entered the race—said recently that she opposes legalizing marijuana for adults.

“I don’t think legalizing marijuana is the right direction for our state,” said Ayotte, who represented New Hampshire in the Senate from 2011 to 2017 and was previously the state’s attorney general from 2004 to 2009.

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.

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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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