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Sununu predicts bipartisan plan to legalize marijuana in NH won't reach his desk

Cannabis is displayed inside the Mountain Girl Cannabis store, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Rutland, Vt. Vermont's recreational retail marijuana market opens Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, with three stores doing business. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)
Lisa Rathke
New Hampshire is the only state in New England that has not legalized marijuana. Here, cannabis is displayed inside the Mountain Girl Cannabis store in Rutland, Vermont.

The latest plan to legalize possession and retail sales of marijuana in New Hampshire has broad bipartisan support, plus the backing of advocacy groups across the political spectrum. But the bill’s lead sponsor is cautioning that it’s still very much a work in progress.

“I fully expect that the final product will look completely different from what you are seeing now,” House Majority Leader Jason Osborne said at a State House press conference ahead of the bill’s first major hearing in the House Commerce Committee Wednesday.

As it stands, Osborne’s proposal would permit anyone over 21 to possess or give away up to 4 ounces of marijuana. It would also annul records of past marijuana possession offenses and allow state-approved retailers to sell cannabis. Retail sales would be taxed at 8.5%.

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As drafted, the plan would also allow adults over age 21 to "securely cultivate up to six plants (three of which may be mature), and possess the cannabis produced by those plants at home."

Money generated by the marijuana sales would be earmarked for state pensions and substance abuse prevention. It would also flow to towns that permit retail sales and to law enforcement.

House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm, a co-sponsor of the bill, predicted legalization will generate business development in New Hampshire, which is now the lone New England State where possessing marijuana for recreational use remains illegal. He argues that permitting adults to use cannabis would also mitigate harm caused by criminal prosecutions, which disproportionately affect people of color in New Hampshire.

"Our communities and economy will be stronger when we legalize cannabis for adult use in New Hampshire,” Wilhelm said.

New Hampshire decriminalized marijuana for personal use in 2017.

But according to the ACLU of New Hampshire, about 1,000 people are still charged with marijuana possession in New Hampshire every year.

“Our estimate is that we are spending about $2.6 million every year on just pure enforcement of marijuana possession laws in our state,” said ACLU of New Hampshire Policy Director Frank Knaack.

Sununu’s office not expecting bill to reach governor’s desk

The House has repeatedly backed plans to legalize cannabis.

Typically, marijuana bills are heard first in the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee. This bill was assigned to the House Commerce Committee, an apparent move by leaders to foreground the bill as more about business than law and order.

But traditional foes of marijuana legalization showed up to Wednesday’s hearing armed with familiar arguments.

“Legalization and commercialization of cannabis is creating a public health hazard,” Bedford Police Chief John J. Bryfonski, speaking on behalf of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, told lawmakers. “It’s caused increased chaos and tragedy on our highways.”

Law enforcement's opposition to marijuana legalization schemes has rarely swayed the House. The Senate, which has never passed a legalization bill, is a different story. The proposal has some support in that chamber, but it’s far from clear if it will be enough for it to win passage.

One staunch supporter, Democratic Sen. Becky Whitley of Hopkinton, emphasized what polling has long shown: Voters here favor legalization.

“Seventy-four percent of Granite Staters support legalization – 74%," Whitley told the committee. “Wouldn’t you be elated if you got that sort of support at the polls?”

Gov. Chris Sununu – who won his latest reelection bid with 57% of the vote – is another potential hurdle for this bill.

Sununu has said New Hampshire may ultimately join neighboring states to legalize marijuana, but he has also repeatedly said that he’s hesitant given the state’s opioid and fentanyl epidemic.

Earlier this month, Sununu and top safety officials launched a new anti-drug effort called “No Safe Experience.”

When asked for comment on the bill Wednesday, Sununu’s office indicated they aren't expecting any legalization plan to reach the governor’s desk.

“It's failed in the Senate repeatedly, in both Republican-held years and Democrat-held years,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “With teen drug use and overdoses on the rise, it is not anticipated that the legislature will see this as a time to ignore the data and move it forward.”

Osborne, meanwhile, said he has discussed his proposal with Sununu but declined to characterize the conversation.

“I don’t want to comment on what the Governor may be thinking about this,” Osborne said.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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