Legislature, new governor poised to decriminalize marijuana

By DAVID CARKHUFF, THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
New Hampshire has been a thorn in the side of marijuana-legalization advocates, and a bright spot for those battling to keep the drug illegal amid a flurry of pro-pot ballot measures.
But this year, based on the make-up of the state Senate, legalization advocates expect the state Legislature to approve decriminalization, which would reduce marijuana possession from a criminal offense to a violation.
"New Hampshire has lagged behind other states in the region on marijuana policy for many years," said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, the group which successfully pushed for last year's referendum to legalize pot in Maine.
Simon, who has lobbied for legalization in New Hampshire for about a decade, said, "It's the only state in New England that has not yet decriminalized simple possession. The House has passed decriminalization bills several times dating back to 2008. They have always been opposed by the governor, and they have always been killed in the Senate. That finally changes this year."
For the first time, New Hampshire has elected a governor, Republican Chris Sununu, who, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, "is clearly on record in favor of decriminalizing marijuana possession."
"The make-up of the state Senate, which has killed seven decriminalization bills dating back to 2008, also improved in the 2016 election," the MPP reported. "Several of the worst prohibitionist senators from last session did not seek re-election, and some of the candidates who replaced them have much more enlightened positions on marijuana policy. Now that two neighboring states, Massachusetts and Maine, have legalized marijuana for adult use, New Hampshire appears poised to finally decriminalize possession in the 2017 session."
Eight states have legalized marijuana — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, Maine, Nevada and Massachusetts.
In March 2016, a WMUR Granite State Poll revealed that a majority of state respondents support legalizing marijuana for recreational use. "Sixty-two percent of randomly selected adults supported legalization of marijuana," WMUR reported at the time.
But prominent opponents will continue to push back against the tide of legalization in New England.
Last fall, as Maine voters contemplated the referendum to legalize marijuana statewide, Roman Catholic Bishop Robert P. Deeley cited the "devastating impact felt in Colorado since the commercial sale of marijuana began in January of 2014." A comprehensive report issued by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, Deeley reported, gave evidence that legalized marijuana is a public-safety concern. In the study, marijuana-related traffic deaths increased by 62 percent and marijuana-related hospitalizations increased by over 30 percent in Colorado, the Bishop warned.
Deeley also warned that the use and abuse of marijuana by the youth of Colorado increased by 20 percent since legalization in that state. (The Diocese of Manchester is awaiting the language of bills before commenting on New Hampshire marijuana policy.)
Despite these warnings, voters in Maine approved legalization by a narrow margin. A statewide recount sought by opponents failed to change the outcome. In Maine, marijuana possession and home cultivation will become legal Jan. 30 — the legally required 30 days after certification. Gov. Paul LePage proclaimed the Nov. 8 election results on Saturday, Dec. 31, according to the Marijuana Policy Project in Maine.
Warnings against legalization have gained more traction in New Hampshire. On March 26, 2014, the New Hampshire House voted 192-140 against legalizing one ounce of marijuana for recreational use. At the time, the New Hampshire affiliate for Smart Approaches to Marijuana — a nationwide anti-legalization group — called the vote "a victory for public health advocates across the state."
Linda Saunders Paquette, executive director at New Futures, a SAM affiliate, reported, "Full legalization of marijuana would lead to lower work place productivity, expose our children to an increasingly potent substance, and increase the amount of intoxicated drivers on New Hampshire roadways."
The Marijuana Policy Project disputes these and other public-health risks associated with marijuana and argues that opponents rely on scare tactics. But Simon conceded that New Hampshire legislators may not be the first in the nation to legalize marijuana through the legislative process, as opposed to voters approving bills via referendum.
"As far as legalization, it's going to take some time," Simon said. "There is finally going to be a bill that would legalize marijuana, with Senate Democratic leader Jeff Woodburn sponsoring that. Everybody recognizes with the 24 members of the New Hampshire Senate, that's going to be an uphill climb."
"No state has done it through the legislature yet," Simon said, and he said Vermont or Rhode Island could be first rather than New Hampshire.
Decriminalization — the act of removing criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana and replacing them with a civil fine — stands a better chance in New Hampshire, Simon said.
On another front, New Hampshire has been the slowest state in New England to roll out its medical marijuana program, Simon reported, but called 2016 "a big year."
Four dispensaries opened, following a patient's lawsuit against the state spurring the issuance of identification cards. In the next legislative session, Simon expected a flurry of bills to improve the state's medical marijuana program, which was implemented in 2013.