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CONCORD, NH — The number of state senators in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use may have grown enough to flip the script from the last time the Senate considered such a measure.
On May 12, 2-22, the N.H. Senate killed House-passed Senate Bill 299, 15-9.
The Senate has often rejected cannabis bills approved in the House, so any change in political sentiment among New Hampshire’s two dozen senators could signal whether there’s a chance the state will join 21 others that allow recreational use.
Four of the senators who voted against SB 299 have been succeeded by senators who support legalization.
Sen. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, who worked on a recreational-use bill last year as a state representative, now holds the seat of retired Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, who was one of the Legislature’s most vocal opponents of pot.
Republican Sen. Daryl Abbas of Salem, prime sponsor of a legalization bill while serving as a representative last session, now holds the Senate seat of Chuck Morse, R-Salem, the Senate president last year who opposed that measure.
Newly elected Sen. Keith Murphy, R-Manchester, is a co-sponsor of a legalization bill this year, House Bill 639. He succeeded Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester, who was among the 15 senators who voted against SB 299.
Also in that group of 15 who voted in opposition was Gary Daniels, R-Milford, who was defeated last year in the general election by Shannon Chandley, D-Amherst, who said in a survey by Citizens Count last year that she supports legalization of cannabis for adults.
Meanwhile, new senators such as Donovan Fenton, D-Keene, and Debra Altschiller, D-Stratham, who both voted for legalization bills as representatives, have succeeded senators who also supported such measures.
“There are new faces in the state Senate — myself, Abbas, Altschiller, Lang, Murphy — we all came from the House side of things, and we all voted for legalization when we were there,” Fenton said Friday. “So I have extremely strong hopes.”
One of the arguments against legalization is that it would put more marijuana into society and that more young people would be able to get their hands on it.
But, Fenton, who has two boys, one 4 and the other almost 2, dismisses this worry, saying there is already easy access to marijuana throughout New Hampshire, which is surrounded by states that have legalized its sale.
“I think it’s pretty available right now,” he said. “And other states that have legalized it are not having those issues. I don’t think I’ve seen a news article where someone says, ‘My son stole a blunt off my nightstand and my son got stoned.’ ”
Meanwhile, other lawmakers remain in opposition, including Sen. Denise Ricciardi, R-Bedford, whose district includes the area towns of Fitzwilliam, Greenfield, Hinsdale, Jaffrey, Richmond, Troy and Winchester.
She has supported decriminalization and medical use of marijuana.
“However, with these same families in mind, I cannot vote to legalize any drug, including marijuana, while Granite State families are already facing the repercussions of a nationwide drug epidemic. Now is not the right time,” she said in an email Friday.
“We are seeing a significant increase in fentanyl throughout our state and the tragic consequences being experienced by families across New Hampshire. We need to have a firm handle on the current crisis as well as the effects of cannabis use on young people before even considering exploring other cannabis expansions — It’s the responsible position to take.”
First-term Sen. Carrie Gendreau, R-Littleton, would be another “no.”
“Medical marijuana has been a benefit for many patients for a variety of reasons. I am, however, opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana,” she said in an email.
Even if the House and Senate passed a recreational-use measure, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu would still have a chance to kill it.
Sen. Daniel Innis, R-Bradford, said he would support legalization “with the right bill” but doubts the governor shares his view.
“I think the makeup of the Senate certainly has changed and it’s conceivable that it will get through, but I’m virtually certain the governor will veto it,” Innis said Friday. “So I don’t know if that will affect the vote of some senators, it very well may.”
The governor’s office issued a statement Wednesday saying that it doubts a legalization measure would pass the Senate this year, adding, “With teen drug use and overdoses on the rise, it is not anticipated that the legislature will see this as a time to ignore the data and move it forward.”
Sununu has opposed marijuana legalization proposals in the past.
Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, has voted against marijuana legalization before, but for now, she is not rendering an opinion on the issue or on HB 639, a bipartisan measure that would allow adults to possess up to four ounces of marijuana, permit home cultivation, state-licensed private cultivation and retail sales.
Presently, possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of pot carries at least a $100 fine.
“Senator Soucy does not have a comment to share at this time,” Ava Hawkes, the Senate minority caucus director, said in an email. “As there are a lot of moving pieces to this legislation, Senator Soucy would like to see the final version of what is sent to the Senate from the House before offering a comment.”
Sen. Howard Pearl, R-Loudon, succeeded Republican Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, who has voted in support of legalization.
Pearl said Friday he is reserving judgment on the issue. In 2019, as a state representative, he voted for a legalization bill that passed the House but died in the Senate.
A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll from a year ago shows nearly three-quarters of Granite Staters were in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
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