A New Hampshire commission charged with preparing legislation to legalize adult-use cannabis through a system of state-run stores heard testimony from leaders of the state’s medical marijuana program on Thursday, during a meeting that at times was marked by visible impatience and frustration.
The bulk of the meeting centered on a presentation by Michael Holt, administrator of the state’s Therapeutic Cannabis Program, and Patricia Tilley, director of the state Health and Human Services Department’s Division of Public Health Services. The pair were ostensibly invited to provide input on how New Hampshire should handle medical marijuana regulation if it also legalizes broader recreational sales to adults.
Holt began by describing the state’s current medical marijuana system as “a maturing but vulnerable program,” noting that many of New Hampshire’s neighbors have legalized for both medical and adult use, and in some cases prices are much lower.
“We regulate a product and industry that is impacted by a rapidly evolving recreational cannabis regional market with a patchwork of different state regulations,” he told the panel. “We know that access to cannabis, both therapeutic and recreational, is oftentimes easier and more affordable across our borders.”
Most states that legalize adult-use marijuana, he said, see patient registrations decline by an average of 31 percent. Among many reasons why, he explained, “patients will choose to self-medicate, patients don’t want to be on a state registry, patients don’t want to talk to their doctor about the program, they don’t want the application process, they don’t want the application fee they don’t want the doctor visit. And some patients can afford more expensive recreational cannabis.”
“If New Hampshire values the state’s therapeutic program,” Holt asked, “then how does it maintain the program alongside legal retail sales of cannabis to adults?”
But as the pair launched into what they initially described as a 30-minute presentation, members of the commission almost immediately interrupted with questions. Often Holt and Tilley would reply that the answers to those questions were included in their presentation, but members of the panel urged them to move through the slideshow more expediently.
“If you don’t mind, for the sake of efficiency, I kinda want to get of the meat of why we’re—what the scope of the commission is,” said Sen. Daryl Abbas (R), who chairs the so-called Commission to Study with the Purpose of Proposing Legislation, State-Controlled Sale of Cannabis and Cannabis Products.
Tilley asserted that her department has three main priorities for medical cannabis: “We want safe product. We want it to be accessible. We want it to be affordable,” she said. “We look to you as a commission to set the tone and set the direction.”
The pair said they hoped to have a chance to provide input on draft legislation once it’s available.
Abbas replied that he was hoping the two health officials would simply dictate how to integrate the two programs. “It’d be helpful if you just told us how to do it,” he told Tilley. “That would save us probably a full day of hearings.”
The 17 members of the commission hold mixed records on cannabis policy. The body includes five lawmakers from the House, five members of the Senate, a governor’s designee and professionals representing banking, health, law enforcement and civil rights interests.
The governor signed a bill in August to create the commission after bipartisan lawmakers in both chambers reached an agreement in a conference committee to enact the incremental reform.
The panel’s job is to consider cannabis legalization’s possible impacts on New Hampshire and craft recommended legislation by December 1. Lawmakers would then take up the bill in the coming 2024 session.
But since having its first meeting nearly a month ago, the commission has yet to release any kind of draft legislation to indicate the direction it’s headed.
At the beginning of Thursday’s hearing, members agreed that they were planning to use a past bill introduced by Abbas when he previously served in the House, HB 1598, as a starting point for their discussion. But at the end of the meeting, Abbas referred to a separate draft measure that has apparently been prepared.
“There is a draft that’s been put together here. I’ll circulate that, but that’s not going to be 1598,” he said, encouraging members to read the proposal before the panel’s next meeting on October 19.
“Who made that draft?” asked Sen. Rebecca Whitley (D), noting that other groups are also working on legislative language. “I want to wait before a draft goes out.”
Abbas did not directly answer Whitley’s question, instead replying, “This is the first draft, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of edits to it.”
Abbas did not immediately respond to an inquiry from Marijuana Moment requesting a copy of the draft legislation.
Another member of the commission, Rep. Shaun Filiault (D) complained that the lack of a common draft bill to refer to has created disorganization and confusion among panelists as well as those providing testimony.
“We’ve now had four hours of presentations from two agencies because we are operating in a vacuum which has turned into a freewheeling discussion about the merits of marijuana,” Filiault said. “Our purpose is to propose legislation. Let’s work the way that most of the committees do put the proposed legislation on the table allow for comments on that.”
While it took considerable back-and-forth between the health officials and panel members at Thursday’s, eventually Holt listed a bevy of provisions his office thinks are important to include into a regulatory system. They included establishing a diverse cannabis advisory board, creating an education campaign on responsible use and storage of marijuana, data collection and monitoring, independent testing laboratories, universal cannabis labels, serving sizes on adult-use products—but none on medical products—certain advertising restrictions and limitations on public consumption, among others.
To prevent the adult-use market from eclipsing medical marijuana, Holt recommended medical products be exempted from state taxes. He also noted that medical cannabis cardholder fees can dissuade patients from remaining in the system. The state may also want to remove its current requirement that medical dispensaries be organized as not-for-profit entities in the state, Holt said, adding that the restriction tends to make products more expensive, not less.
In addition to generally studying the feasibility of a state-run cannabis model, which has the support of Gov. Chris Sununu (R), the group 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 its second meeting last month, members considered an alternative to a state-run plan that would instead license a system of private franchisees. Control over marketing, store design and packaging and labeling, however, would be retained by the state.
“The model that we are looking to put into place, that we feel would be feasible, is that the Liquor Commission would be the franchisor and the franchisee would be the retailer,” Joseph Mollica, chairman of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, said during that meeting.
Holt said that if the state adopted a franchise model, “patients need to know that they’re going to the same store that they’ve been doing to for the past seven years,” referring to how long dispensaries have been open in the state. That might necessitate opportunities for the nonprofits to incorporate some of their own branding into franchised stores.
With less than two months left before their recommended legislation is due, members spent the end of Thursday’s meeting scrambling to set a schedule. Ultimately they decided that representatives from state Attorney General John Formella’s (R) office along with medical dispensaries will provide testimony at the panel’s next meeting, on October 19. Public comment will be held on October 24.
Subsequent meetings will be held November 3, 9 and 16, with a final product expected to be ready for a vote on November 28.
Matt Simon, the director of public and government relations at medical marijuana provider GraniteLeaf Cannabis, told Marijuana Moment that he expected to see a draft measure from Abbas soon. “He invited us to email him and request it,” he said.
Simon noted that many of the provisions being discussed at Thursday’s meeting were already contained in HB 639, a legalization measure passed by the House earlier this year. That was one of a number of competing legalization plans in past years.
“All of our advocacy has been consistent with trying to create a functional market that serves New Hampshire well and creates an environment where businesses can do well but not control the whole thing,” he said in an interview. “We want to have an upward trajectory of some kind. And if the state passes something that excludes us from retail, we’re quite certain that will be—either in the short run or the long run—a downward trajectory.”
(Disclosure: Simon supports Marijuana Moment’s work via a monthly Patreon pledge.)
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 this year 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 reached an impasse on the complex legislation, which was being considered following Sununu’s surprise announcement that he backs state-run legalization. Meanwhile the Senate defeated the more conventional 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.