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Governor Hassan Unlikely To Back Marijuana Decriminalization

Allegra Boverman for NHPR
Hassan speaks in front of the N.H. Legislature

New Hampshire has a reputation as a place where liberties are prized yet it’s the only New England state where possessing even a small amount of marijuana remains a crime that can land people in jail. A bill before the state’s GOP-controlled legislature would change that, but first it needs to win the backing of Governor Hassan.

If you were an advocate of looser marijuana laws, freewheeling New Hampshire, where seat belts are optional and the state puts liquor stores at highway rest stops, might seem fertile ground. But pot is an issue that defies the state’s live free or die image.

“Well, first and foremost it’s illegal under federal law.”

That’s Governor Maggie Hassan. She made those comments after the GOP-controlled N.H. house voted by more than 3 to 1 to decriminalize marijuana possession up to a half ounce.

“Secondly, what we know, the more research that’s been done is it has very serious impact on young people. So I think it’s really important to proceed with caution.”

And caution has been the watchword for top democrats here. Hassan’s predecessor, John Lynch, vetoed medical marijuana twice. Hassan ended up signing that bill when it passed a third time in 2012, but only after it was tightened to make it the most stringent law of its kind in the country.

Longtime democratic Rep. Dan Eaton, is a decriminalization backer. He says cultivating a tough on drugs image has been good for democratic governors – and a key political ally, the law enforcement lobby.

"Unquestionably you have the factor, that the chiefs association, the state police association. All of these groups are very strong supporters of this governor, the prior governor, and have come out emphatically in opposition."

And NH’s law enforcement groups are emphatic on marijuana. Here’s David Goldstein of the NH Police Chiefs testifying before lawmakers last month:

“Minimizing the fine and the effects and the severity of this offense, sends the very wrong message to our children and our young adults. Never even trying the substance should be our goal.”

Decriminalization backers, meanwhile, argue that keeping simple possession a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of a $2,000 fine and a year in jail is outmoded. Jon Cohen is a Concord defense attorney.

“I have had clients who go to jail for possession of marijuana -- they do go to jail for possession of marijuana -- and this law would help to remedy that problem because it is completely out of step with the rest of New England.”

And it’s this argument that may carry the day. No one close to this issue is expecting agreement this year on any policy that would truly decriminalize marijuana, but a proposal to relax penalties on a first offense? That might stand a chance with Governor Maggie Hassan.

“I do think a first offense should not ruin a young person’s life.”

Not exactly 'Live Free or Die,' but for those out to decriminalize marijuana in New Hampshire, it's better than the status quo.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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