By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – The Senate Judiciary Committee heard six cannabis bills Thursday including one in which the state would sell it at liquor stores and tax the wholesale price of the drug at 12.5 percent.
No votes were taken following five and a half hours of testimony.
The state is losing as much as $15 million a year to neighboring states from residents going there to buy the drug and could realize about $30 million a year for education, state employee pensions, mental health care and substance abuse awareness with an adult sales law, according to Tim Egan of Sugar Hill, a former state legislator who testified.
“We can either control it or leave it to the black market,” said Egan, who chairs the state cannabis advisory board.
But Bob Dunn, director of public policy for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester spoke in opposition to state sales because it is “counter to the common good.”
He asked if the passage would protect youth and make people better workers and healthier.
Any revenue, he said is sure to be outweighed by the financial and social costs that would flow from that as a consequence.
The bill enjoyed a supermajority passage in the House but it faces an uphill struggle in the Republican-controlled Senate where similar bills have faltered in the past.
Then, if it gets past the 14-10 Senate it faces Gov. Chris Sununu’s pen. He has recently said now is not the time to sell cannabis when the state faces an ongoing opioid epidemic.
In reference to the governor’s argument, Egan said marijuana has been found to be used as an exit ramp drug for those suffering from opioid addiction.
The bills were all scheduled, perhaps coincidentally on the unofficial “high holiday” for cannabis users, April 20 or 4/20 but the whole thing could go up in smoke in a matter of days.
Some testifying said it could be dangerous to the state’s youth to legalize the drug, even though it would be sold and state-controlled for those aged 21 and over.
House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn a co-sponsor of HB 639 to tax and sell cannabis, said he wants to take a plant that should be growing in his own garden next to zucchini, away from the black market of “thugs” and regulate its contents for safety.
The Granite State is an island in New England surrounded by states and a Canadian province where pot is legal. Twenty-one states have legalized the drug so far and other states are considering it as revenue from the sales is pouring into state coffers.
The Judiciary Committee heard not only HB 639 but a suite of cannabis bills Thursday that have all found majority favor in the House.
House Bill 360 is an act legalizing cannabis for persons 21 years of age or older. House Bill 431 would permit qualified patients and designated caregivers to cultivate cannabis for therapeutic use. House Bill 610 would expand the definition of providers who can certify patients for the therapeutic cannabis program, which the state currently has. House Bill 473 would reduce penalties for first-count controlled drug violations. House Bill 611 is relative to the eligibility criteria for the therapeutic cannabis program.
But the big, 30-page bill is House Bill 639 relative to the legalization and regulation of cannabis. It was approved by the House by a vote of 272-109.
Under the provisions of the bill which have been altered since its introduction in January, the New Hampshire Liquor Commission would regulate the commercial cultivation, processing, safety testing, and distribution of cannabis. It started out as a 15 percent tax.
A majority of the revenue raised by the 12.5 percent tax would go to help the state’s pension liability and New Hampshire’s education trust fund with 30 percent going to Health and Human Service needs.
Communities could opt out of sales, though some testified it should be an opt-in provision.
Currently, New Hampshire law says simple possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of cannabis is a civil offense subject to a fine of up to $100. Possession of cannabis in amounts greater than that is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $350.
Both Osborne and House Minority Leader Matt Wilhelm, D-Manchester are co-sponsors of House Bill 639 https://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/bill_status/billinfo.aspx?id=532&inflect=2.
Bedford Police Chief John Bryfonski, representing the Association of Chiefs of Police spoke in opposition to the bill.
He was asked by committee chairman Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, about fatalities and other issues police have with marijuana and bringing charges.
This bill doesn’t provide for a limit on the active ingredient THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in the body from marijuana to bring an impairment charge for motorists, he said.
Scott Gagnon, a prevention specialist in the state of Maine, testified in opposition to HB 639 at the request of NH’s Drug-Free Communities.
He said he would recommend the bill to legalize be killed because other states have had negative public health outcomes from the “mass commercialization” of the substance.
He said impacts will be hardest on marginalized minority populations.
Gagnon noted that Osborne said “the sky is not going to fall” if marijuana isn’t legalized in New Hampshire this year, and he urged the committee to listen to that.
“I’m really glad to hear you talk about the public health issue,” Carson said. She said while some eat the drug in brownies and gummies she worried about smoking.
“It’s not good for your lungs.”
Gagnon said he would defer to medical experts. He said secondhand smoke is another issue and he can smell it in open spaces in Maine.
“It just opened up the floodgates,” he said. “The psychosis thing,” he said would be the killer.
Carson said a family member went to Denver and was appalled at the smell. She talked about the Cheech and Chong movies where smoke was coming out of cars and asked how to control it in public places.
Gagnon said, “You can’t change how the wind blows.”
State Sen. Becky Whitley, D-Hopkinton, a member of the committee, noted the bill states there is a prohibition on cannabis where smoking is not allowed.
The bill also includes provisions that would erase past marijuana convictions.
Matt Simon, director of public and government relations for Prime Alternative Treatment Centers spoke in support of the bill saying cannabis is less harmful than alcohol.
“It’s very important we separate fact from fiction. It is very difficult to do that in one afternoon,” he said.
He said policies should not involve handcuffs and needs to be a result of all people “coming to the table.”