The New Hampshire Senate has voted to create a study commission to examine potential models to legalize marijuana as the as the governor predicts that his plan to create a state-run cannabis market will likely be considered by lawmakers “next year.”
Meanwhile, senators moved to set aside another House-passed marijuana legalization bill—though representatives are now discussing pursuing compromise legislation next week that would provide for a combination of state-operated and privately licensed cannabis shops while also allowing current medical cannabis dispensaries to serve the adult-use market.
It’s not clear if the Senate would go along with the alternative proposal, which is slated for House committee consideration in the coming days—but senators on Thursday tabled the separate non-commercial legalization measure from Kevin Verville (R) in a 24-0 vote. The chamber also set aside a separate bill to allow medical marijuana patients to grow their own plants, voting 16-8 to table that measure as well.
Later in Thursday’s session, the Senate took up a modest medical cannabis bill, and members approved it with a key amendment from the chamber’s anti-legalization president that would create a commission to “study state-controlled sales of cannabis and cannabis products.”
The 20-member Commission to Study State-Controlled Sales of Cannabis—comprised of bicameral lawmakers appointed by leadership, the state attorney general and governor (or designees) and representatives of various agencies and interest groups—would study the “feasibility” of the state-controlled cannabis model.
Further, it would need to specifically examine issues such as youth diversion, restricting marketing, prohibiting large concentrations of marijuana shops in one area, local control and taxes.
Members would need to submit their findings and recommendations to the legislature by December 1—a relatively quick turnaround signaling that lawmakers would then be prepared to act on reform legislation at the beginning of the new year as several lawmakers and the governor are suggesting.
“Even when we disagree with a policy, we do try to work together to improve the policy in such a way that it’s right for New Hampshire,” Senate President Jeb Bradley (R) said on the floor on Thursday, explaining why he filed the amendment. “While I’m not happy with the direction that we’re on, I do have a commitment—and I think all of us have a commitment—to making sure it gets done right.”
These latest votes come one week after the Senate voted against a more conventional legalization bill from bipartisan House leadership that advocates had preferred.
After Gov. Chris Sununu (R) came out in support of legalizing cannabis through state-operated stores last week, there were some like House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R) who suggested that the non-commercial marijuana bill could be amended on the Senate floor and used as a vehicle for that reform.
Others were skeptical, arguing that it would be more realistic to take the state-run reform idea back up in 2024. Bradley, the Senate president, said last week that “it’s much better to come back with a piece of legislation next year—for proponents to do that—and to vet it properly with public hearings, work the process.”
To that point, the study commission amendment he introduced to the Senate-passed medical cannabis bill could facilitate such vetting.
The governor told InDepthNH that he’s spoken with Bradley about the issue since backing legalization, and he said he also believes “it would come up next year.”
An earlier House-passed bill to legalize through the state model was unanimously defeated in the Senate last year, raising additional questions about the measure’s prospects.
Sen. Tim Lang (R), who is one of three freshmen GOP senators who supported the state-run legalization bill last session while serving in the House, said that he doesn’t think the reform should be advanced “rapidly” and that there are certain issues with the prior state-run measure that “still need to be covered.”
The bill is a “great starting point for us,” he said. “I don’t anticipate we get it done this session, but we will get it done this term.”
But House lawmakers might try to challenge that timeline with their latest attempt at a compromise.
An unrelated bill that’s sitting in the House Commerce Committee that concerns delinquent payments from alcohol licensees could be amended to include a hybridized cannabis legalization proposal.
The amendment from Chairman John Hunt (R), which is set to be discussed in committee on Tuesday, puts state-run stores at the forefront, but regulators would also be able to issue licenses to private individuals to operate shops on a seasonal or annual basis.
Existing medical cannabis dispensaries would be able to receive dual licenses allowing them to serve patients and adult consumers. That was a key component of the House-passed legalization bill that the Senate rejected last week.
The amendment would not permit home cultivation. No tax would be imposed on cannabis products.
Penalties for public smoking would be increased. And it further calls for municipal votes in November 2024 for cities that wish to opt in to allowing “cannabis establishments”—though that definition in the bill doesn’t include retailers.
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Advocates and stakeholders have expressed concerns about the prospects of a state-controlled cannabis model, preferring a more conventional market like the one the House majority and minority leaders sponsored.
The home grow bill that senators tabled on Thursday would allow patients and designated caregivers to cultivate up to three mature plants, three immature plants and 12 seedlings.
With respect to the non-commercial legalization bill, the Senate also defeated similar legislation last year.
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.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.