The New Hampshire Senate has rejected a House-passed bill to legalize marijuana.
Just two days after receiving an unfavorable recommendation from the Senate Judiciary Committee, the full chamber defeated the measure in a 14-10 vote on Thursday.
Following the committee vote on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Sharon Carson (R) predicted that the legislation from bipartisan House leaders would fail on the floor. The governor also recently expressed opposition to the reform.
HB 639 is one of several cannabis bills that have advanced through the House this session. The Senate Judiciary Committee also voted this week to designate a home grow measure for medical cannabis patients and a non-commercial legalization bill “inexpedient to legislate.”
But advocates were particularly focused on HB 639, sponsored by House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R) and Minority Leader Matthew Wilhelm (D). There were early hopes that the increased pressure to enact reform, as well as certain changes to Senate membership following the last election, would clear a path to passage. But that path was blocked once again.
There was extensive floor debate on Thursday about the impacts of legalization in other states, with members sharing mixed evidence on how the reform affects traffic safety, youth consumption and health-related issues.
Sen. William Gannon (R) spoke out against the bill, at one point saying the sate should not “sell out the future of New Hampshire youth for money, as Judas sold out Jesus for a few shining coins,” arguing that “we will share the same regret as Judas did” if lawmakers legalized cannabis.
Other senators spoke in favor of the reform, including Sen. Becky Whitley (D), who said “this is another debate that we have had year after year, even when the will of Granite Staters has been made crystal clear to this body. Granite Staters want cannabis legalized in New Hampshire.”
— NH Senate Democrats (@NHSenateDems) May 11, 2023
“New Hampshire cannot let another year go pass without legalizing and regulating cannabis for adults,” she said. “Cannabis prohibition is a failed policy that has torn apart families, wasted our very limited resources and it makes it impossible to enact important health and safety regulations that control where, when and to whom cannabis is sold.”
The Senate previously 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.
Here’s what HB 639 would have accomplished:
Adults 21 and older would have been able to purchase, possess and gift up to four ounces of cannabis.
The newly renamed Liquor and Cannabis Commission would have been responsible for regulating the marijuana market and issuing business licenses.
There wouldn’t have been any statewide cap on the number of marijuana businesses that could be licensed.
Within 18 months of enactment, the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and commission would have needed to develop regulations allowing existing medical cannabis dispensaries to apply for dual licenses to start serving adult consumers.
Cannabis would have been taxed in the amount of 12.5 percent of of products’ value in their final form at the wholesale level.
After the costs of legalization implementation were covered, $100,000 of revenue would have funded data collection and reporting on health impacts of cannabis prohibition and cannabis regulation.
Of remaining funds after that, 50 percent would have been disbursed to cities and towns to offset the education tax, 30 percent would have been credited to the New Hampshire retirement system to offset its unfunded accrued liability, 10 percent or $25 million (whichever is less) would have funded substance use programs, 5 percent would have been used to hire and train drug recognition experts and 5 percent would have supported children’s behavioral health services.
Localities wouldn’t have been allowed to limit or ban marijuana businesses from operating in their area.
There would have been 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.
Marijuana companies could have deducted business expenses from their taxes at the state level.
There weren’t any provisions to allow home cultivation or annul prior cannabis convictions.
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There were reports prior to Thursday’s vote that an amendment would be introduced on the floor to legalize cannabis with state-run operators that the governor would be amenable to, but no such measure materialized and a spokesperson for Gov. Chris Sununu (R) said that they were “unaware of any legalization amendment.”
Meanwhile, Osborne, the GOP sponsor of HB 639, recently implied that he’d be willing to hold up Senate-passed bills that sit in his chamber if senators continued “kicking the can down the road” on marijuana reform.
Majority Leader @Osborne4NH on the increasingly precarious fate of the House cannabis legalization bill now in @TheNHSenate: "…there are a lot of Senate bills in the possession of the House right now & it would be a shame if anything were to happen to them." #NHPolitics #WMUR pic.twitter.com/6ivDfYv4yb
— Adam Sexton (@AdamSextonWMUR) May 8, 2023
While Sununu remains opposed to legalization—and said last week that marijuana reform should take a back seat to other drug policy priorities—his tone as seemed to soften on the issue. Last year, he said during a debate that legalization “could be inevitable,” though he added that states need to “be patient about how you do it.”
After the Senate rejected two different legalization 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.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.