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Marijuana Advocates Optimistic in Northeast Despite Setbacks

Pixabay, Fotobias
Legislators around New England are embracing some marijuana policies, though not without reservation.

Lawmakers in Vermont yesterday stopped short on a bill that would have legalized possession and sale of Marijuana. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, a bill to decriminalize pot possession is headed to Governor Sununu, who says he’ll sign it.

And in Massachusetts, where recreational use of marijuana was approved by voters in November, lawmakers are pushing to raise taxes on marijuana and tighten regulations, for instance by requiring background checks for workers in the industry.

Matt Simon, New England Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project, joined NHPR’s Peter Biello to discuss this current moment in marijuana policy.

The state of New Hampshire is making an effort to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. What else has been going on with respect to marijuana in the Granite State recently?

There have been several bills that passed the House and Senate this year and moved to the Governor’s desk. The most well-known one is the decriminalization bill, HB 640, but there are also several other bills, mostly around making the medical cannabis law, which passed in 2013, making that more accessible to more patients.

For example, a bill passed making moderate to severe chronic pain a qualifying condition, and thus making it much easier for medical providers to certify patients who have pain issues and many of whom are otherwise being prescribed opioids, which is obviously causing such a problem.

Finally, there’s a bill that would create a study commission to look at marijuana legalization and regulation, and that is on its way to the Governor’s desk right now.

There’s been some movement on the legalization of recreational use of marijuana in a couple of our neighboring states, Vermont and Massachusetts. In Vermont, the House delayed an effort to overturn the veto levied by Governor Phil Scott. That happened just yesterday.

If Vermont had gone ahead and legalized recreational marijuana, all of our neighboring states would have had some kind of policy for legal recreational use. How do you think that would have shaped the debate here in New Hampshire?

I think it’s already shaping the debate, seeing Massachusetts and Maine legalize in November. It’s already legal for adults in Massachusetts and Maine to grow marijuana, to share it with their friends, and to consume it.

Just not to sell it.

Not to sell it, not yet. But many Granite Staters have friends in those states who they can go visit and legally obtain marijuana from, so marijuana’s widely available across New Hampshire in one way or another. But the reality of having stores open up right across the border in these two states has definitely impacted the debate.

In Vermont, the headline was we lost yesterday, but it’s really a positive situation in our opinion. The House, the Senate, and the Governor have all publicly agreed that marijuana should be legal, and that that should take effect next summer.

So this bill being on pause until the legislature reconvenes appears to be a temporary setback, and I’m  confident Vermont will move forward with that.

So that’s the fact of legalization in Vermont. The how is still being debated in Massachusetts, where lawmakers are looking at a tax of up to 28% on marijuana sales. I imagine lawmakers in New Hampshire are looking at that and waiting to see exactly how much could be gained as far as revenue is concerned.

Yeah, that’s right, and that’s certainly an interest with the budgetary situations in all the New England states.

I hope to remind legislators throughout this process that raising tax revenue is not the only reason or even, in my opinion, the main reason to be regulating marijuana production and sale. We have a failed policy of prohibition where hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into an illicit market, there’s no regulation for adult use, and whatever people are concerned about with marijuana, those problems can be addressed much more reasonably and sensibly through a regulated system.

Part of that is having tax revenue, but a huge part of that is not having thousands of New Hampshire buying from illicit drug dealers when they could instead be buying from regulated marijuana stores or growing their own supply.

So unpacking marijuana from the larger drug policy debate has been challenging, but I think people are realizing that taking marijuana out of the illicit market, regulating it, treating it similarly to the way we treat alcohol just makes sense. Marijuana’s less harmful than alcohol. It does not belong in the same basket as drugs like heroin and fentanyl, and that’s what we’re learning and will see happen from a policy perspective.

What would you say to those that say that legalizing marijuana would make it easier for people under the age of 18 to acquire and use it?

Well, it’s already very easy for people under the age of 18 to acquire and use it, despite the best efforts of police and educators over the course of a very long time.

Do you dispute that legalization would make it easier?

I do, I don’t think we know that. I think it’s already widely available, and it’s as available if not more available than alcohol, which is regulated.

So what has to be done is you have to persuade young people that they don’t want to try marijuana until they’re older. We already have that messaging with alcohol: You have to wait until you’re 21, this is okay for adults but it’s not okay for children.

I don’t think it’s a big leap, and we’ve certainly seen Colorado and Washington make that shift, where marijuana education becomes much more reality-based, instead of cracking an egg in a skillet and saying, “This is your brain on drugs, don’t do this.” We know that’s not  going to work in the age of information, when kids can fact-check things on their smartphones and iPads. Whatever we tell kids has to be based in science, and has to be verifiable.

There are good reasons to wait until your brain is fully developed before using marijuana. Let’s focus on those reasons, rather than trying to punish adults for using a substance that’s  objectively less harmful than alcohol. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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