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Council Given Big Say on N.H. Pot Laws

Concord — New Hampshire hardly broke new ground in late July when it became the 19th state to legalize medical use of marijuana to treat those with chronic pain.

Illinois since has became the 20th.

But tucked into New Hampshire’s fine print is a powerful oversight group with an expansive reach and the broadest mission of any state.

“This was unique because in other states, groups like this got set up to judge the law long after it was underway,” said Matt Simon, state director of the Marijuana Policy Project.

“New Hampshire’s law really empowers this council to get started right away and to track implementation, which is critical.”

The biggest nightmare scenario for Simon and legislative supporters of the medical marijuana movement is if New Hampshire goes the way of New Jersey; after more than three years, that state is still without a network to dispense the drug to medically eligible patients. That’s why the New Hampshire council’s effectiveness is so important.

“This program needs to be set up as effectively and as quickly as possible, and this group should help make sure that happens,” Simon said.

The 15-person Therapeutic Use of Cannabis Advisory Council will hold its first meeting Sept. 26.

Gov. Maggie Hassan still needs to name three members to group, but the new law required the first meeting to be scheduled within 45 days from its signing. That deadline has passed.

Hassan’s office doesn’t have much concrete to say about the committee or its unfinished roster.

“The governor looks forward to working with the medical marijuana advisory group established by HB 573 to help ensure effective oversight and to implement the law effectively and in as timely a fashion as possible in order to give health providers another option to help New Hampshire’s seriously ill patients,” Hassan communications director Marc Goldberg said.

The notion for an oversight panel started innocently enough when supporters first suggested that such a group merely issue a report to the Legislature and governor five years after the law was in place.

The New Hampshire Medical Society, a prominent lobbying group initially opposed to medical marijuana, then proposed creating an ongoing group that would make sure medical professionals were kept aware of the new program.

Simon said supporters jumped on the idea, and the council concept grew from eight to 10 members, and finally to 15.

“We had several groups approach the sponsors to say they wanted to be represented, and that was fine with everyone,” Simon said. “We were left with a broad cross-section of all the stakeholders, pro and con.”

The council includes supporters such as state Rep. Jim MacKay, D-Concord, who led the legislative negotiating effort that produced the final compromise, and New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Devon Chafee.

Then there are opponents and skeptics, such as State Police Lt. John Encarnacao, who testified against it several times, and Dr. Stuart Glassman, of the New Hampshire Medical Society.

Hassan’s three appointees to be named are a patient who qualifies for the drug, a member of the public and a representative of a New Hampshire hospital.

State Attorney General Joe Foster, of Nashua, will also be on the panel, unless he designates someone else.

Other groups represented include the state board of medicine, state board of nursing and an advanced nurse practitioner.

The charge given this council is as diverse as its membership.

Supporters wanted to make certain the council became the chief monitor of the Department of Health and Human Services as it creates operating rules for the sale of marijuana by four licensed treatment centers.

State officials convinced the Legislature to give them 18 months to complete the rule-making process.

Meanwhile, Simon noted the medical marijuana law voters passed in Massachusetts began on Jan. 1 and that the rules process there took less than eight months to complete.

Simon and many legislative supporters make no secret that their ultimate desire is to permit patients or caregivers to grow their own marijuana in New Hampshire.

Legislative supporters in the House agreed to drop that provision once it became clear Hassan wouldn’t sign the measure if the home-grown option was included.

“New Hampshire is only one of five states with a dispensary-only model, and we haven’t had enough history yet to see this work well in any one of them,” Simon said.

That’s why the council’s work includes a look at “the effectiveness of alternative treatment centers, individually and collectively, in serving the needs of qualifying patients.”

Conversely, opponents will have the council gathering information, perhaps to buttress their case against any grow-your-own initiative in the future.

The New Hampshire Medical Society’s agents insisted the state of research was at best mixed about whether use of medical marijuana extended someone’s life with reduced suffering or whether the benefits outweighed the side effects of using the drug in some cases.

Past society President Seddon Savage offered such a study last spring even as the medical lobby dropped its outright opposition.

“We believe this is the only responsible way to move forward,” Savage told a House committee. “This is experimental treatment; we need to move cautiously on this.”

“Marijuana is an under-studied drug, and it’s known to have had harms.”

Thus, the council has to gather all studies into the health effects of patients using marijuana and educate doctors and advanced practice registered nurses about that research.

For members of law enforcement who opposed the law, the council will verify whether the state has the “regulatory and security safeguards” to control dispensing of the drug and report on any illegal distribution or diversion of the drug from the treatment centers.

Finally, opponents kept a requirement that the council has to issue a formal report to the Legislature in July 2018 on whether the law should stay on the books or be repealed.

“I do believe everyone at the table, whether they were with or against this program, is there because they now want to see that it’s done right,” Simon said.

“That bodes well for this council’s work.”