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N.H. Crime Lab Reduces Backlog After Marijuana Decriminalization Put In Effect

Dan Tuohy / NHPR

Six months ago, the State Police Forensic Laboratory had a backlog of about 3,600 cases. It’s now down to 1,600, and analysts are steadily chipping away at the number of controlled drug cases.

There are a few reasons for the progress, Director Timothy Pifer says. They’ve hired two extra chemists, for one.

Another factor: Marijuana decriminalization.

New Hampshire’s state law eliminating jail time for possession of a small amount of marijuana took effect in September of 2017.

The newer violation level resulted in a drop in cases sent to the lab, according to Pifer, who discussed drug case information in testimony Monday to a state commission studying marijuana legalization, regulation, and taxation.



Forensic lab staff do not just test samples. They often travel to courts around the state to testify in various drug cases. For whatever reason, Pifer says, his office previously received more subpoenas for small amounts of marijuana than it did for larger cases.

“Now that it’s a violation level, we don’t see the samples coming into the lab. I don’t see analysts having to travel to court. We’re able to focus time on larger marijuana cases as well as, obviously, our fentanyl and opioid crisis that we’re dealing with.”

The case data submitted to the pot study commission shows a dramatic drop in marijuana cases analyzed by the lab. From 2014-2016, marijuana cases were the most for controlled drug testing.

In 2017, Fentanyl cases soared and outpaced the marijuana cases, 2,202 to 1,799. So far this year, at least through March 1, the number of cases analyzed by the State Police Forensic Laboratory:

  • Fentanyl: 279
  • Pharmaceuticals: 168
  • Cocaine: 137
  • Methamphetamine: 129
  • Marijuana: 98
  • Heroin: 47
  • Synthetics: 16

For toxicology drug case information, based on number of cases with positive results, the Forensic Lab tested 60 fentanyl cases to 28 marijuana cases in the first two months of 2018.
Legalization Debate Expected in the House
The New Hampshire House may have a big debate this week, as advocates for marijuana legalization try to stave off a legislative defeat.

House Bill 656 would allow an adult to possess just under one ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants.

The House passed it by a wide margin in January.  But a committee is now recommending the bill for further study. 

Rep. Patrick Abrami is vice chairman of House Ways and Means. He says lawmakers are still taking the question of marijuana seriously, and he rejects claims that the study recommendation is a way to kill the bill.

"It wasn't a polite death," he says. "Because some people view interim study as polite death, but this is definitely not. We are going to be meeting as Ways and Means do look at this."

Hampton Rep. Renny Cushing is a supporter.  He's among those asking that the bill be removed from "consent calendar," where most non-controversial bills go for an up-or-down vote. He hopes the House supports the bill when they vote, which is likely going to be on Thursday. 

Cushing says people appreciate the narrow scope of this bill, which does not allow for the commercial sale of marijuana. He says it's akin to allowing people to brew their own beer at their house. 

Listen to Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, speak about House Bill 656.

The marijuana legalization study commission also heard Monday from New Hampshire State Police Major John Marasco. He shared concerns from a prosecutor in Washington state, which legalized recreational marijuana via Initiative 502.

Marasco said those concerns include an increase in youth pot consumption, an increase in work for Washington's toxicology lab, and marijuana being cheaper to buy illegally on the street than from legal providers. Per Washington state's pot law, an adult 21 or older may only buy or sell marijuana at a state-licensed retail store.

Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, and Rick Naya, director of the pro-marijuana group N.H. NORML, also spoke. They advocated for legalization of recreational marijuana use for adults. And they pointed to existing in laws on home cultivation in surrounding states. 

"In a free society, people are expected to self-govern. If they don't do so, there are consequences. There's enforcement," Simon said. "Live Free Or Die."

"Live Free Or Die," Naya repeated. "Hear, hear."

The commission received testimony earlier this year about the challenges that states that have legalized marijuana have faced, including existing black markets.  Naya said New Hampshire has the biggest black market of any state in New England. He contends that House Bill 656, which he calls "a new beginning," would counteract this.

The commission is working to line up speakers later this spring to discuss legalization in Maine and Massachusetts.

Dan is a long-time New Hampshire journalist who has written for outlets including Foster's Daily Democrat, The Citizen of Laconia, The Boston Globe, and The Eagle-Tribune. He comes to NHPR from the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he reported on state, local, and national politics.
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