A compromise legalization bill that doesn’t allow cannabis sales is under consideration by New Hampshire lawmakers after a full legalization bill died last year.
Legalization efforts in New Hampshire have faced opposition from both Gov. Chris Sununu and the senate, which voted in December to table legalization. The state has passed medical cannabis, and reduced penalties for possession to a fine without arrests.
Now, an advocacy push is gearing up as the state’s House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee held a hearing Thursday on HB 1648, a bill that would remove criminal penalties associated with cannabis possession, and also allow for limited home cultivation. The bill would not allow for any cannabis sales. Penalties for driving while impaired by cannabis, or for selling cannabis to a minor, would remain.
“As we found out last year, the House has pretty much agreed on legalization. But we are not agreed on how to regulate it. So this simply takes it out of the commercial realm and lets people who grow their own,” Rep. Carol McGuire, sponsor of HB 1648, said Thursday during a news conference before the House committee hearing.
New Hampshire is surrounded, along every border, by jurisdictions with legal cannabis: Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and even Canada. And top-down support in the state lags behind neighbors pushing for legalization, like New York and Connecticut. (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of the push for legalization across the northeast.)
“This is particularly important since you step outside of the border of New Hampshire on any side, there’s a place where you can buy it legally. I would rather have people who want to use it to be able to grow to grow in privacy in their own backyard and not have to travel to other states,” McGuire said.
Rep. Renny Cushing, a cosponsor of HB 1648, said that legalization is “consistent” with what New Hampshire residents think of as “live free or die.”
“Cannabis reform is just common sense and transcends traditional political boundaries, political divisions,” Cushing said. “We’re now kind of an island of prohibition in a sea of states and Canada that surround us where adult, recreational use of cannabis is permitted. We want to end that.”
Richard Van Wickler, a superintendent at the Cheshire County Department of Corrections, spoke on behalf of Law Enforcement Action Partnership. Wickler said that he’s spoken with lawmakers and constituents across New Hampshire, and generally has found that voters are ahead on this issue, more so than many of our legislators.”
“Legalization of cannabis use is finally getting a fair hearing and sound judgment from legislators across the nation. It’s time for New Hampshire to join sound reasoning and take responsible action on this debate and pass this into law,” Wickler said.
Jeanne Hruska, a political director with ACLU-NH, highlighted the role of cannabis prohibition in mass incarceration.
“New Hampshire is not immune to the racial disparities that we see elsewhere in the country. There was a racial disparity in the arrest rate before decrim. And there is no reason to think that that arrest rate disparity has changed post decrim. We believe that part of comprehensive criminal justice reform must include cannabis legalization,” Hruska said.
Ross Connolly, deputy director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire, said that the organization supports HB 1648 for a simple reason: with hindsight, cannabis prohibition didn’t “achieve” the promises made, and at the same time, it’s damaged communities.
“This bill is a compromise that should find more support in both the House and Senate since it does not go into the commercialization of cannabis. That is something that we can tackle as a state at a later time,” Connolly said. “For now, we should focus on halting the arrests and fines of people in possession of cannabis. And then we can have that debate on what a legal market and commercial market would look like in the future.”