NH marijuana commission fails to find consensus for a legalization policy

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A state commission created to come up with a plan to legalize marijuana in New Hampshire has failed to find consensus on a proposal top lawmakers in both parties had hoped would provide a template for legislation.

Instead, the commission will file a report that contemplates state-created franchises to sell recreational cannabis under the control of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission without recommending the policy actually become law.

“There is a clear majority saying we don’t want to move this forward,” Rep. Tim Cahill, a Republican from Raymond, said moments before the committee voted 7-2 to issue the report.

The unexpected outcome followed a lengthy debate of procedure, the commission’s role, and what options lawmakers had when it came to recording the commission’s judgment of its own report.

“This is cheesy maneuvering,” Rep. Susan Homola, a Republican from Hollis, said deep into the debate of the commission report that backers hope may still provide lawmakers with a model.

“Trust me, someone is going to file something,” said Sen. Daryl Abbas, the Salem Republican who led the committee.

As drafted, the committee proposal would permit adults to buy recreational cannabis through stores franchised by the New Hampshire Liquor Commission.

The state would impose a 15% fee on retail outlets’ gross sales. Revenue would be earmarked for tax relief, law enforcement, and mental and behavioral health issues.

The committee could not reach an agreement on penalties for public use of marijuana, or if the policy should trigger automatic annulments of past personal use marijuana infractions.

Gov. Chris Sununu, who has generally opposed the legalization of cannabis but also called it “inevitable,” has signaled he could permit recreational marijuana to be legalized if its sales and marketing were tightly regulated by the liquor commission.

But his desire for specific new controls — including a limit on political activity by franchise holders, and a 15 store cap on cannabis outlets — were late-breaking wrinkles as the committee struggled to find agreement.

“I can tell you from the point of view of the governor’s office, we are adamant about that number,” said David Mara, Sununu’s advisor on addiction and behavioral health.

Citing free speech concerns, the committee quickly scuttled Sununu’s idea to limit political activity by people in the cannabis business, but did back the governor’s proposed cap on stores, over the opposition of Paul Morisette, who lives in New Hampshire and is a partner in Maine-based East Coast Cannabis.

“You are not going to collect the tax you are projecting in 15 stores. You are setting up the liquor commission to fail,” Morrisette warned the commission.

But by the meeting’s close, the likelihood that New Hampshire will quickly join every other New England state in permitting adults to use marijuana recreationally felt far off.

From the outset Monday, some longtime participants in this debate were emphasizing that any work the commission completed would inevitably be revised by lawmakers anyway.

“This isn’t the end,” Republican Sen. Tim Lang of Sanborton noted. “We are just getting to the beginning.”

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Josh Rogers

Josh Rogers is senior political editor and reporter for NH Public Radio.