Fight Shaping Up Over Marijuana Legalization

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CONCORD — Dueling proposals for legalizing cannabis for recreational use are shaping up to be a significant skirmish between the House and Senate.

At a public hearing on House Bill 1663, the House-passed version of the latest bill to legalize marijuana, two Senators proposed changes to increase regulations and tighten oversight of any new program.

Many testifying in opposition talked about the drug’s impact on young people with developing brains, saying legalization is a green light for use.

Other concerns were safety on the highways, increased use and the health of long-time users and what the costs could be for the state.

But others said it is high time the state legalized marijuana’s recreational use as New Hampshire is the only state in New England where it is not legalized.

And they said the state is experiencing the effects of its use because it is so easy to obtain in surrounding states, but without the benefits of revenue from sales.

Senate President Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, who opposes legalizing marijuana said the fundamental goals everyone should agree on are proper oversight, the protection of public health and safety, the state of New Hampshire should not be beholden to “big marijuana” and not invite the black market into the state.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Erica Layon, R-Derry, urged the Senate Judiciary Committee not to make many changes to the bill that passed the House saying what it is a balanced approach that drew enough support, but may not with wholesale changes.

She said legalizing cannabis will not significantly increase the users of the drug as it is readily available in surrounding states and on the black market, although they are not getting a safe, regulated product on the illicit market.

“You are rolling the dice,” Layon said, with the likelihood of “consuming a tainted product.”

She also suggested the 10 percent sales or franchise tax should not be increased as it would result in the legal products being about the same as on the black market.

The sections dealing with driving while impaired by cannabis would be the same as drunk driving were also carefully crafted, Layon said, to satisfy concerns.

The bill allows the businesses associated with medical marijuana to compete for the 15 franchises under the bill as well as growing the products.

Under the bill, those under 21 years old would not be allowed in the retail stores. 

“Family-friendly cannabis stores are not anything anyone wants to see,” Layon said. “I would like to see us find something we can all agree on this year.”
The House has passed a number of bills legalizing cannabis, but the Senate has yet to approve any.

Layon was asked by Sen. Bill Gannon, R-Sandown, if any of the money reaped from the state tax would be going to education to prevent people from using the drug, and she said that about $500,000 would be coming from the general fund for education the first year, but Gannon wondered about a yearly set aside which was not in the bill.

Sen. Daryl Abbas, R-Salem, wondered why the Liquor Commission would have regulation oversight of the program, but not enforcement.

Layon said law enforcement currently handles enforcement and under the bill would continue to do that. She said the Liquor Commission wanted to add personnel in enforcement before sales would begin.

The House-passed bill uses the agency store model for the sale and distribution of cannabis for recreational use for those over 21 years of age.

The amount of marijuana an adult could possess is limited to four ounces, but home growing of cannabis would not be allowed.

Regulations would be under the Liquor Commission and initially the number of stores would be limited to 15 with expansion possible in the future.

Gov. Chris Sununu has said he would agree to a program legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use, if the stores were under Liquor Commission control or a franchise model, which the House-passed bill does not.

New Hampshire is the only state in New England which has not legalized its use.

The bill passed the House on a 239-136 vote.

Smoking cannabis in public is prohibited in all the proposals, but the penalties vary both for first violations to multiple offenses.

Abbas’s amendment would put greater restrictions on the program, and would incorporate a number of the suggestions that grew out of last year’s study commission, which he chaired.

Noting where he lives on the southern border, his area is already dealing with a lot of the social impacts of legalization, but not the benefits.

“We are not receiving any revenue or enforcing any regulations on the businesses in Massachusetts, Maine or Vermont,” he said. “If we had stores in New Hampshire, we would have a hand on the wheel and something to say about it.”

His proposal would also allow a pathway for the medical cannabis business owners to participate in the legalization, but it will not be a license for an outlet store, he said.

Bradley went through Abbas’s amendment and suggested further changes to tighten regulation and provisions.

“I don’t support this bill. But one thing I’ve learned over my years in this building is how to count. If you have 13 votes for this, you have 13 votes,” he said, implying that would pass the 24-member Senate. “If this passes, we need to make it the best possible version of legalization we can.”

He proposed restrictions around schools, and similar restrictions while driving as open containers for both smoking and edibles, and enhanced penalties for adults who use cannabis with children in the vehicle.

He also objected to a provision in both proposals that would allow ownership over three functions, sales of medical cannabis and a retail store, as well as growing the products, and up to three of any of those functions. 

“You’re inviting big marijuana into the state,” Bradley said, “and squeezing out any New Hampshire interest.”

If you allow one company to own three growing facilities, he said, “they will own this building.”
He also said lobbying by any businesses associated with cannabis should be prohibited.

Bradley also proposed an upper limit on potency for different products, notification for any change of ownership and revenue going to the host community for facilities.

“I still will oppose it,” Bradley said, but “these changes are absolutely essential if we are not going to allow big marijuana in and we want to eliminate the black market.”

The committee did not make a decision of what recommendations it would make on the bill after the hearing.

Cannabis Violations 

House Bill 1539 would allow a person convicted of a cannabis offense prior to July 1, 2024 to petition the court for an annulment.

The bill would remove the current $300 fee for an annulment hearing, and would allow State Police and Department of Justice to also annul records after reviewing those who would be eligible.

But State Police said about 2,500 cases would take more than the six months allowed to make a decision on an annulment. Older cases will be more difficult to track down, State Police said.

The Attorney General’s Office had some concerns about the process established under the bill, but did not take a position on the policy of the bill.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Jonah Wheeler, D-Peterborough, said at this time when the state has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cannabis, “it is a moral wrong to have persons with these charges on their record and could get a job and have rehabilitated themselves.”

The NH Association of Chiefs of Police opposed the bill.

The committee did make an immediate recommendation on the bill.

Garry Rayno may be reached at

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