Top New Hampshire lawmakers are giving mixed feedback on the governor’s newly announced support for legalizing marijuana sales through a system of state-run stores—with some saying that passing such legislation this year is unlikely.
Gov. Chris Sununu (R) revealed on Friday that he’s come around on cannabis reform, but only if shops are operated by the state itself rather than by private companies. The pivot came just one day after the Senate defeated a House-passed commercial marijuana legalization bill.
But while Sununu signaled that he’d sign legislation to enact state-controlled legalization this session, Senate President Jeb Bradley (R) said on Monday that he doesn’t want to rush the process.
“Doing it fast doesn’t mean doing a right,” he told WMUR-TV. “I think 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. I that is a much better option than trying to jam something through this year.”
Legalizaton of cannabis under state control (now backed by @GovChrisSununu) isn't out of the question in the weeks ahead, but it's looking less likely as @TheNHSenate President @SenJeb says he's still a firm "no" & it's better to fully vet this issue next year #NHPolitics #WMUR pic.twitter.com/wJJ9DotWlh
— Adam Sexton (@AdamSextonWMUR) May 15, 2023
House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R), who sponsored the bill to legalize marijuana through a move conventional private model that the Senate killed, was more open-minded about advancing legislation that aligns with the governor’s proposal.
He said on Friday that a separate House-passed bill to simply end cannabis criminalization that is still pending Senate floor action could theoretically be amended to include state-run regulatory provisions and advance the reform through that vehicle “if the Senate wanted to.”
Osborne said that passing a state-run stores bill “could get done this year if the Senate were to send it back to us for a concurrence” but that waiting until 2024 would probably be too late.
Reacting to news of @GovChrisSununu's willingness to sign a state control cannabis legalization bill (like last year's HB1598), Majority Leader @Osborne4NH indicates "it could get done this year" if @TheNHSenate makes the first move. #NHPolitics #WMUR pic.twitter.com/FEGTO4Npgz
— Adam Sexton (@AdamSextonWMUR) May 12, 2023
Osbourne also responded to a tweet from Rep. Jared Sullivan (D), who suggested that lawmakers should not be “rushing through a state monopoly on cannabis.”
The majority leader said that he can “see how it seems like a rush if you haven’t been watching these bills get squashed time after time, always to be told ‘put a bill in next year.'”
“If y’all don’t want to put it to bed now, that’s cool,” he said. “Just don’t be surprised when we’re still doing this in another ten years.”
I can see how it seems like a rush if you haven’t been watching these bills get squashed time after time, always to be told “put a bill in next year.”
If y’all don’t want to put it to bed now, that’s cool. Just don’t be surprised when we’re still doing this in another ten years.
— Jason Osborne (@Osborne4NH) May 13, 2023
An earlier House-passed bill to legalize through the state model was unanimously defeated in the Senate last year, casting further doubts that it would advance even with the governor now opening the door to the proposal.
House Minority Leader Matthew Wilhelm (D), the other prime sponsor of the more recently defeated legalization bill, released a statement saying that the governor “is a day late and a dollar short,” complaining that Sununu “conveniently” waited until after his legislation failed to “finally engage on cannabis legalization.”
“The policy framework proposed by Governor Sununu today is significantly different than what has been debated in the House and Senate over the past four months,” he said. “Despite Sununu’s sudden, calculated desire to raise his national profile on a popular issue, we will continue approaching cannabis legalization through the methodical, thought-out way that Granite Staters deserve.”
When asked about whether his decision to back legalization was related to his expected run for a 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Sununu said “no” and that he doesn’t believe there’s “any political win in this at all.”
“I couldn’t game that out at all. I think most more conservative Republican states wouldn’t like this idea potentially,” he said. “But again, when you see our model and you see this come through—and we’ve we put the numbers down, we’ve looked at all the system aspects of it—I think folks will understand this is probably going to be the best model in the country.”
Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy (D) and Assistant Minority Leader Becky Whitley (D) agreed with Wilhelm, saying jointly that it is “without question” that the governor’s announcement “are the definition of a day late and a dollar short.”
“For years, Granite Staters with their ‘Live Free or Die’ license plates have continued to drive across the borders of our state to purchase safe and legal cannabis from other states,” they said. “It is disappointing that the Governor could not work with the Legislature, let alone his own party, to advocate for legalizing cannabis until after the Senate had already killed a bill that could have been the path forward on legalization.”
Meanwhile, 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 measure that “still need to be covered.”
Important for those counting votes for legalizing cannabis: Sen. @tlangsr, one of three freshmen GOP senators who backed state control marijuana last year while serving in the House, says he wants to go through a full legislative process with a bill next year #NHPolitics #WMUR pic.twitter.com/klt2iPugUc
— Adam Sexton (@AdamSextonWMUR) May 15, 2023
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.”
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.
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The governor has also weighed in on other potential concerns with his proposal, such as putting state workers at risk of facing federal penalties for directly participating is marijuana sales while cannabis remains strictly prohibited.
He pointed to the fact that more than half of the states in the country have legalized marijuana in some form and the federal government has long tolerated these markets. And he argued that a state-controlled system would be even less likely to run up against federal conflicts.
“By having it under state control, we understand those systems, we have relationships with the federal government,” he said. “Our attorney general can work with them directly to understand their issues or problems and concerns, as opposed to many of these other states that just have non-profits or for-profit businesses just kind of all over, haphazard. They are at far more risk than a state-control system, to be sure.”
Sununu also said that he wouldn’t necessarily promote the cannabis market like he does for the New Hampshire’s state-run liquor and lottery systems, though he acknowledged that it may similarly attract out-of-state visitors.
“We’re not doing this for the money. We’re not doing this for the notoriety,” he said. “We’re doing this to support individuals—adults that want to do this safely in their homes—to make it available to them.”
“We’re doing this for the harm reduction—controlling, knowing that, inevitably, a much worse system is likely to come online down the line,” he said.