By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – None of the bills related to cannabis from legalizing recreational use in adults to allowing people to grow it for therapeutic reasons are going to the full Senate with a recommendation to pass.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 along partisan lines Tuesday to recommend the full Senate reject a handful of bills that will come before the upper chamber on Thursday.
Included in the “inexpedient to legislate” recommendation are House Bill 639, which would set up New Hampshire’s Liquor Commission to regulate the sale of recreational marijuana to adults, and House Bill 431 which would allow homegrown cannabis for therapeutic purposes.
Also, the committee voted to kill House Bill 473 which would drop from a felony first-time possession of cannabis in quantities greater than three-quarters of an ounce.
In New Hampshire now, small amounts of marijuana are an offense that can be fined up to $100.
Senate Democrats Shannon Chandley and Rebecca Whitley supported the measures but voting inexpedient to legislate were Republicans Sharon Carson, William Gannon, and Ruth Ward. The Republicans did not explain their vote position during the meeting other than Carson saying in some cases that the bills were not ready to be passed.
The committee heard many hours of testimony both for and against the bills last month.
After the votes, Carson said in a news release: “As a representative of the people of New Hampshire it is crucial that we prioritize the safety and focus on addressing the current drug crisis that our communities are facing…
“Our state is currently facing a severe drug crisis and we must focus our resources on tackling this issue head-on. By Investing in prevention programs, expanding access to treatment and providing support for those in recovery, we can make a meaningful difference in the lives of Granite Staters,” Carson said.
Whitley said, “We are at a point where our constituents have asked us and they are very clear,” that they want adult recreational cannabis to be legalized.
“I think our constituents are asking us to do something,” she said. “Over 75 percent of our constituents recently polled support this.”
She said a host of stakeholders worked on House Bill 639.
One piece missing from other bills in the past, she said, is the opportunity for the state to obtain revenue, “which is something we desperately need.”
Estimates are that the state could bring in $30 million a year.
“I think this bill would recapture revenue that is fleeing our state and going to our neighbors,” she said.
The bill would tax it at 12.5 percent at the wholesale level, a lower tax than in neighboring states.
Whitley said New Hampshire is an island of prohibition.
She said it is currently an unregulated market and, “I think the black market is a scary thing.”
Chandley said the bill related to homegrown would help patients who can legally get therapeutic cannabis but this would allow them to grow it at home, getting a variety that might not be sold at dispensaries, with less cost and without having to drive long distances.
The real showdown on pot will be Thursday when the full Senate meets to consider the recommendations.
It could vote them down, meaning the end of the road for those efforts this year, pass them to an uncertain future at the governor’s desk, table, or re-refer the bills back to committee.
While the House voted overwhelmingly to support adult recreational cannabis, the Senate has never liked pot and the governor has never seen a legalization bill on his desk.
And while Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican has maintained in the past that this is not the time, in the midst of an opioid crisis, he left some wiggle room and did not say he would veto adult recreational cannabis when he met with reporters last week.
“No piece of legislation that fully legalizes recreational cannabis has ever gotten to my desk so I don’t anticipate that is going to happen,” he said.
Sununu said the state still faces polydrug deaths and spikes at times but is making overall progress in relation to the opioid crisis. And he noted law enforcement concerns are beginning to be met on driving and impairment with pot.
“As we move forward, I’ve always said now is not the time. I think there is new technology coming on board to detect it on roads.”
And “the roots of the Doorway system have really taken hold,” Sununu said referring to his program to combat drugs. “We’ve had a lot of success…there’s harm reduction value that obviously has to be taken into consideration. Those are the things you want to look at.”
Asked about the potential revenue, Sununu said, “You don’t want to look at revenue. You don’t legalize more drugs for money…you do it because you look at the harm reduction, the opportunities for citizens, the pros and the cons if you will in terms of what that would really mean, understanding that yeah, a lot of other states around us have done it, but that’s not why we do anything.
“New Hampshire has always stood out from the crowd and we’re just going to make, again, the best decision for those 1.4 million people. But it’s never got to my desk so I don’t know if it’s going to,” Sununu said.
HB 639 passed the House overwhelmingly on April 6 on a vote of 272-109 to make New Hampshire the 23rd state in the nation to legalize weed.
A copy of the main bill is here: HB 639 https://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/bill_status/billinfo.aspx?id=532&inflect=2 The way the bill is crafted, it would have the Liquor Commission carry the primary responsibility for oversight of the sale of the drug which would be taxed at 12.5 percent at the wholesale level.
This would be a lower tax rate than imposed in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island at 15 to 20 percent.
Half the proceeds would go for local property tax relief related to the education portion of the bill.
About 30 percent would help fund state pension coffers and 20 percent would go to health programming.
The bill allocates about $15.6 million for start-up costs.
It is opposed by the Police Chiefs Association of New Hampshire and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester among others while it is supported by the ACLU-NH.
House Bill 360, an act legalizing cannabis for persons 21 years of age or older was also recommended as inexpedient to legislate, 3-2 in committee.