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NH House poised to send marijuana plan to Senate, where its fate is uncertain

Cannabis sign at State House
Josh Rogers
A person holds a sign supporting marijuana legalization as lawmakers enter the New Hampshire House of Representatives on April 6, 2023.

The New Hampshire House will vote Thursday on a bill to legalize marijuana for adults and allow it to be sold at state-licensed retailers who would pay a 10% tax on monthly sales.

If the proposal becomes law, New Hampshire would join the rest of New England in permitting recreational marijuana use.

The plan heads to the House floor with the strong bipartisan backing of the House Commerce Committee, which endorsed its passage by a 17-3 vote.

The measure is expected to clear the House, which has backed marijuana legalization for years, regardless of the party holding the majority.

One big question is if this proposal can earn the support of Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who has called legalization “probably inevitable” and said he could sign the “right” marijuana bill. But Sununu has also never proposed legislation or involved himself in policy negotiations on marijuana legalization, beyond indicating provisions he’d want to see in a bill. For lawmakers who back legalization, that’s created something of a moving target.

“We’re all working from the governor’s list of what would be needed in a bill,” Derry Republican Rep. Erica Layon, the plan’s lead author, noted as lawmakers finalized the House’s plan last week.

Under the bill up for a House vote Thursday, marijuana sales would be tightly regulated by the state Liquor Commission, the entity Sununu has said should oversee cannabis sales in New Hampshire. The bill also limits how cannabis could be marketed, and requires all products be tested for purity and clearly labeled as THC.

This proposal also caps the number of retail locations at 15, the number the Sununu administration cited last fall as one the governor could support. The plan would also require votes by cities and towns before a retailer could open its doors there.

The bill also targets revenue generated by marijuana sales to schools, substance use treatment, police and youth mental health — which would seem to meet Sununu's stipulation that any bill should “focus on harm reduction.”

But before the bill gets to the governor, it needs to clear the state Senate, which has never backed marijuana legalization, and where top lawmakers of both parties have tended to be persuaded by opponents of legalization, including police and public health advocates.

“I'm still a 'no' vote, but I can count, and there may be 13 votes in the Senate,” Republican Senate President Jeb Bradley said Wednesday. “But we are a long way from the finish line, and there is a process in the Senate to always try to improve legislation, even if we don’t approve of it.”

Asked if he thought the House bill met the conditions for legalization Sununu has articulated, Bradley said, “That’s where the process comes in.”

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester, the chamber’s longest serving Democrat, has never favored legalization. But he said he thinks this year Sununu will decide the bill’s fate in the Senate.

“He’s at the spigot,” D’Allesandro said. “What does he want, and how much time and effort does he want to put into it?”

Sununu, who was traveling Wednesday for a National Governors Association meeting, was unavailable for comment for this story.

His office said it is monitoring the bill and “looking forward to working with the Senate should it pass the House.”

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