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State Senate kills bill to legalize marijuana in New Hampshire

The New Hampshire Senate again voted to reject legalizing marijuana in the state Thursday, keeping New Hampshire the lone New England state where recreational cannabis use by adults remains illegal.

Republicans, who hold a 14-10 advantage in the Senate, voted as a near bloc to kill this bill, which would allow adults to possess up to 4 oz. of marijuana and would put the state Liquor Commission in charge of regulating it.

Republicans had a key Democratic ally in Thursday’s vote to kill the marijuana bill: the Senate’s longest serving member, Manchester Sen. Lou D’Allesando, cited the decades he spent working as a teacher and coach to argue that loosening marijuana laws would ultimately hurt kids.

“It would say to our children that marijuana is safe and could be used without harmful consequences,” D’Allesandro said, “and nothing could be further from the truth.”

Other lawmakers noted that this bill, which would tax marijuana at 12.5 percent, was too permissive. They stressed it would allow adults to use marijuana in front of children and in any place smoking is permitted, including on the State House lawn.

“That’s not acceptable to me,” said Republican Sen. Howard Pearl of Loudon.

Democrats, particularly younger senators, were the bill’s staunchest defenders.

They pointed to years of public polling that shows broad support for legalization, and the multimillion dollar tax collections New Hampshire’s neighbors are now generating through legal marijuana sales.

“Those are big numbers,” Democratic Sen. Donovan Fenton of Keene told colleagues.

Sen. Becky Whitley of Hopkinton, meanwhile, pushed back against claims that legalizing marijuana for adults would inevitably lead to a spike in rates of use by adolescents.

“Youth already use marijuana right now in our state; it’s undeniable,” said Whitley, a Democrat. “What I want to see is a decrease in that use, and if we legalize, that’s what I’m hearing will happen."

But the politics around marijuana legalization likely means that theory will go untested in New Hampshire, at least until the next state election.

Bills to allow recreational marijuana have routinely passed the New Hampshire House, regardless of which party holds the majority. The bill the Senate rejected Thursday was co-sponsored by the House’s Republican and Democratic leaders.

The state Senate, however, has never backed legalization.

Gov. Chris Sununu, who signed a 2017 law decriminalizing recreational marijuana, is also a skeptic of full legalization. Last year he said he could see signing the “right” legalization bill. But more recently, he has stressed concerns about the state’s ongoing opioid crisis. Sununu has also predicted that a legalization bill would not reach his desk this year.

If Thursday’s action in the Senate is any indication, he is probably right.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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