By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Whether a “drug-free oasis” or an “island of prohibition,” the Live Free or Die state will not legalize marijuana for adults after the state Senate voted to kill House Bill 639 FN-A on a vote of 14-10.
The bill would have set up a legal framework for the sale of the drug, like that in 21 other states, regulating and taxing it at 12.5 percent.
The primary concern raised by senators in Thursday’s session was that legalizing weed would damage the state’s youth and send them the wrong message.
But others said this was about adult use and the public wants and needs the responsible, thoughtful regulation of the drug to ensure safety for adults who do use and are going out to surrounding states to buy it. They said it does not increase the percentage of use among children in the states that have legalized it.
Sen. Bill Gannon, R-Sandown, said now is not the time to legalize cannabis.
“We’ve already decriminalized it,” in small amounts, though there is a fine of up to $100.
He said the state needs to work to make medicinal cannabis more affordable. But he said selling it would not be a message “I want to send to our kiddos.”
Gannon called it a flawed bill that would allow people to smoke anywhere, within 20 feet of a building.
He said most hard drug users got their start on marijuana.
A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee which heard hours of testimony, Gannon said the committee heard from emergency room doctors opposing the bill. He said there could be a “catastrophic impact on the quality of our state,” and that it could lead to learning disabilities, reduced coordination, and increased depression.
As for the argument that the state is surrounded by states which have legalized marijuana, “I for one never want to be like Massachusetts…We are a drug-free oasis.”
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, spoke in favor of killing the bill.
He said he spent 50 years of his life teaching and coaching kids and he is a parent and a grandparent.
“I have never been so caring about an issue as I am about this,” D’Allesandro said.
Specifically, he said his concerns are for the state’s youth, “our future.” By passing it, D’Allesandro said it would be sending the message to them that marijuana is safe, “and nothing could be further from the truth.”
While the vote was primarily along partisan lines, Republican Sen. Keith Murphy, R-Manchester, voted to support legalization while D’Allesandro opposed it.
Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, said she finds the issue extremely challenging because of conflicting facts. In the past, Soucy has not supported legalization and she said, “I just don’t get it.”
But on Thursday, she supported the bill.
Soucy said “We are encircled,” by other states which have legalized it for sale. “It does put us in some sort of a precarious position. I have become less of an ardent opponent over time.
“What continues to concern me is the use of this product from unregulated sources,” Soucy said. “Potentially laced with pesticides, heavy metals but scariest of all is the consumption of this mixed with fentanyl.”
Soucy said regulating the market would ensure the safety of the product.
“But it’s our job when we got elected to grapple with these issues,” Soucy said.
Sen. Donovan Fenton, D-Keene, spoke in opposition to killing the bill. He said we are an “island of prohibition” and noted there are long lines outside of dispensaries just across the border with many New Hampshire “Live Free or Die” license plates parked there to buy the drug.
Fenton said that establishing a responsible market is good public policy and would recapture revenues lost to other states.
He said in 2021 Maine reported 150 new businesses, thousands of new jobs, and $23 million in state revenue.
Massachusetts, he said, has brought in over $4 billion since 2018.
Sen. Becky Whitley, D-Hopkinton also opposed the motion to kill the bill. She said 74 percent of New Hampshire voters have polled and said they want cannabis legalized. She noted it was voted out of the House with the support of a supermajority.
Whitley said the bill would establish a responsible and regulated adult recreational market allowing for up to 4 ounces to be possessed. It would allow localities to ban or allow dispensaries in their communities and then allocate revenue to needed state sources, including education and health.
She said the myths are that legalization will increase crimes. The states which have legalized it have not seen an increase,” she said.
It will also not increase youth use, Whitley said.
“I care deeply about children in the Granite State,” she said. In states which have legalized, there have been no signs an increase in youth use.
And it will not increase opioid deaths, she said, and in fact, there would be a reduction particularly those who die of a synthetic overdose.
Whitley said the situation in New Hampshire perpetuates a failed war on drugs, and black residents were 2.6 times more likely to be arrested than white residents despite an equal number of users in both groups.
Continuing prohibition has not stopped anyone from using cannabis; it just denies revenue and a lab-tested product that keeps citizens safe, she said.
“Listen to your constituents,” Whitley said. “Today is the day. “I would never support a policy that would harm our youth.”
Sen. Shannon Chandley, D-Amherst, said she has never sponsored cannabis legislation but she rose to support legalization because of the framework for protecting children and the public. Molds, heavy metals, and even other drugs are in the black market product.
“It’s something we cannot ignore,” she said. “The risk of a tainted product is real.”
It is time to reduce the black market and legalizing it will ensure some degree of safety, she said, disputing the “gateway” drug argument.
Sen. Carrie Gendreau, R-Littleton, said as far as revenues, “my question is what is a life worth, if we have our kiddos, smoking and experimenting and we lose one…what is that value?”
Gendreau said Maine closed some cannabis stores because the market was flooded. She argued that youth marijuana use has increased in states which have legalized it.
Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, talked about edible cannabis products and their impacts on children. She also cited a story about people in Denmark claiming that cannabis could be harmful psychologically to youths.