NH Senate committee rejects pot legalization bill

  • Trimmed marijuna buds at 253 Farmacy in Montague. The business plans to produce all of its own marijuana within a year. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Concord Monitor
Published: 12/3/2019 10:20:59 PM
Modified: 12/3/2019 10:20:53 PM

CONCORD — One of New Hampshire’s top champions of marijuana legalization in the Senate changed his tune Tuesday, announcing it was not the right time to pass a sweeping legalization bill.

“I don’t think the state is ready for legalization at this time,” said Sen. Harold French, in brief remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee, arguing the bill needs to be “fixed” first.

French, R-Franklin, made the remarks shortly before the committee recommended 4-0 to shelve this year’s legalization bill. That recommendation will be taken up by the full Senate in January.

The vote signals the latest setback for the legalization campaign in New Hampshire, which for months has struggled to overcome opposition in the state senate and governor’s office, following legislative success with decriminalization and therapeutic cannabis. In 2017, the state decriminalized cannabis; meaning anyone in possession of three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana or less is subject to a fine but not arrest.

In Tuesday’s vote, the senators recommended sending House Bill 481 to “interim study,” a move that would effectively nullify the bill for the rest of the legislative session.

Championed by Rep. Renny Cushing, the bill would have created a regulation and taxation scheme, allowing commercial vendors to sell cannabis and cannabis products and pay a tax to the state. The proposed law would allow personal possession of up to six marijuana plants, and would establish an enforcement bureau to regulate stores across the state.

The bill emerged from a year-long study commission bringing together representatives of health care, banking, law enforcement and others. But by including retail sales of marijuana, HB 481 diverged from legalization schemes in other states, including Vermont, which only allow legalized possession.

The retail and taxation scheme was pitched as a way to raise revenue and bring in out-of-state business, but critics said it would encourage widespread irresponsible use.

In an interview in September, Cushing acknowledged that backlash and said moving forward, his legalization efforts would not include retail or taxation.

Speaking Tuesday, French said that a workable legalization approach could eventually be found in New Hampshire with more study.

“If we hold it we may be able to fix it,” French said, noting that efforts are underway for new legislation next year.

But he also noted uncertainty in Washington as a reason to hold off for now.

In January 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the “Cole memo,” a Department of Justice policy under President Barack Obama that said that the department would not carry out marijuana enforcement in states that have passed legalization efforts. That decision has weighed on some lawmakers, who say it’s unclear whether Granite State residents would be at risk of federal prosecution even if marijuana were legalized.

For now, Sen. Martha Hennessey, a Hanover Democrat, expressed support for hitting pause.

“I agree with you – I believe New Hampshire may not be ready,” she said to French. “But I also primarily believe that this bill had too many things that left us needing answers. And l eft too many people concerned.”

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