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Marijuana Bill Heads to Sununu

Concord Monitor
Published: 6/1/2017 11:23:35 PM
Modified: 6/2/2017 10:51:23 AM

Concord — After years of failed legislative attempts, New Hampshire now is poised to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

A bill reducing the penalties for possession is on its way to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who has indicated he plans to sign it. The measure would take effect within 60 days of receiving the governor’s signature, making New Hampshire the last state in New England to decriminalize the drug.

While in the past lawmakers have been reluctant to loosen marijuana restrictions, several major policies have passed this year, including a vast expansion of the state’s therapeutic cannabis law to cover people with chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. On Thursday, the Republican-led Senate also signed-off on a committee to study legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana.

“It’s been a long time coming, but New Hampshire is finally moving toward adopting marijuana policies that are consistent with the state’s ‘Live Free or Die’ motto,” said Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project.

The changes come as New Hampshire’s neighbors have made moves to legalize marijuana. Voters in Massachusetts and Maine recently approved use of recreational marijuana. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott last week vetoed a bill to legalize recreational pot, but said he’s open to working on revisions, according to Vermont Public Radio.

“It makes no sense for New Hampshire to be an outlier, putting people in prison for possessing small amounts of pot,” said Democratic Rep. Renny Cushing, who has long pushed for reforms.

Over the years, the House has voted multiple times to decriminalize marijuana, but the legislation only passed the Senate for the first time this year. The measure applies only to adults, and would reduce the penalties for possessing up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana by making it a violation that carries a $100 fine on the first three offenses.

Any additional offense within a three-year period could be treated as misdemeanors and subject to higher fines.

Proponents have argued that arresting people for low-level possession drains state resources and unfairly mars people’s criminal histories. New Hampshire spent more than $6.5 million enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010, according to an analysis by the ACLU of New Hampshire. The study also showed that black people are 2.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in the state.

Critics have worried that decriminalizing the drug amid the opioid epidemic sends the wrong message.

Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C., have already decriminalized marijuana, making possession of small amounts of the drug an infraction or a low-level misdemeanor as opposed to a higher-level crime, according to the National Conference for State Legislatures.

Sununu didn’t respond to questions about whether he will sign a bill adding chronic pain and PTSD as qualifying conditions for the state’s medical marijuana law. Though therapeutic cannabis was legalized in 2013, the state’s four approved dispensaries didn’t open their doors until last year.

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