By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD —A bill intended to make cannabis use in a vehicle a violation similar to an open alcohol container ran into a buzz saw of opposition Wednesday.
Senate Bill 60 supporters said it is intended to make the state’s highways safer, but many more people said it targets and discriminates against the more than 11,000 state residents in the medical marijuana program.
The bill passed the Senate on a 21-3 vote last month, but opponents to the bill in the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hearing outnumbered supporters 95 to 33.
The bill was requested by police, said prime sponsor Sen. Bill Gannon, R-Sandown, and is intended to make driving safer for everyone.
He said the number of people being stopped for driving under the influence of alcohol has gone down, but those stopped for driving under the influence of cannabis and other drugs have gone up.
The bill follows the current statute on open containers of alcohol in a vehicle, Gannon said, in order to keep open containers of different forms of cannabis as far away from the driver as possible.
“This is intended to keep people from being impaired while driving,” Gannon said.
But others said the real intent is different.
Heather Marie Brown, a member of the NH Therapeutic Cannabis Medical Oversight Board, and a program participant, charged the bill was “developed and created with the intent of going after therapeutic cannabis patients and that is all this bill does.”
If she had an open container in her purse and her mother was driving, her mother could potentially be arrested, she said.
“This was developed to create discrimination and division,” Brown said. “This is a direct attack against patients and undermines patients.”
Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project called the bill “a big step backwards for criminal justice reform in New Hampshire.”
He said it treats cannabis the same as alcohol when they are very different.
Someone with an open can of beer or bottle of whiskey in a car is probably drinking it, but cannabis is more like having an open pack of cigarettes, he said, which does not mean you are smoking in the vehicle.
One of the reasons for decriminalizing the recreational use of marijuana was to take law enforcement’s focus off small users and onto more serious crimes, Simon said, and this bill would return to the days of law enforcement focusing on small amounts of cannabis.
Rep. Jerry Knirk, D-Freedom, the co-chair of the oversight board and a doctor, suggested the bill exempt patients and caregivers in the state program as did Michael Holt, of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Knirk said medical marijuana is not the same as recreational use.
“The goal is not to get high but to treat a condition,” he said. “Getting high is a negative side effect.”
It is currently illegal to divert cannabis to another person, he said, and brings a criminal penalty and loss of certification.
Holt noted patients in the program are registered and legally possess cannabis like any other medication, noting there is no law against having an open bottle of a prescription drug in a vehicle.
Under state law, possession of cannabis for registered patients is handled like any other medication, he said.
Lobbyist Michael McLaughlin told the committee SB 60 would conflict with current law giving program participants “a right to an affirmative defense.”
With the proposed law a patient could be arrested and then have to go to the expense of fighting it in court where he or she would win under affirmative defense, McLaughlin told the committee.
But Tuftonboro Police Chief Andrew Shagoury, representing the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, said police are seeing more and more drivers under the influence of cannabis.
“This is not about legalization or decriminalization,” Shagoury said. “This is about public safety and vehicles on public ways.”
He said the proposed law is modeled after the open container law, which requires an open container of alcohol be in the trunk of a vehicle and if that is not possible, as far away from the driver as possible, so he or she is not tempted.
With more alternative treatment centers opening around the state, he said, patients should not have long drives to return home.
With cannabis, he said, there are no standards to determine impairment like there is with alcohol, adding it affects people differently and the kind of cannabis product, like the gummy bears, are also a factor.
“The goal is to make sure it’s safer on the roads,” Shagoury said. “It’s not about criminalizing marijuana or going after medical marijuana users.”
But University of New Hampshire Law School professor Buzz Scherr said the fundamental problem with the bill is it seeks to do indirectly what is already prohibited: driving under the influence of marijuana.
The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.