Pot bill begins state legislative journey; Sununu predicts failure

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NH State Rep. Matt Wilhelm, D-Manchester, speaks in favor of a bipartisan bill to legalize recreational marijuana use in New Hampshire. He and other supporters of the legislation held a news conference in the Legislative Office Building in Concord on Jan. 25. Photo/Rick Green

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CONCORD, NH — A bipartisan marijuana legalization bill would yield millions of dollars in state revenue and satisfy a strong public desire to end the prohibition on recreational use, supporters of the legislation said Wednesday.

Backers of House Bill 639, which would allow adults to possess up to 4 ounces of marijuana, touted the measure in a morning news conference and at a House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee hearing in the afternoon. Under current law, adults found in possession of three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana face fines of $100 or more.

Opponents told lawmakers to reject the bill for the sake of public health and safety.

Previous attempts to legalize recreational use of marijuana — as neighboring states have done — have died in the N.H. Senate, as recently as last year, and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu issued a statement saying he doubts this bill will pass.

“It is important to remember that the Legislature has never sent a legalization bill to the governor’s desk — it’s failed in the Senate repeatedly, in both Republican-held years and Democrat-held years,” Sununu said.

“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.”

Democratic Sens. Rebecca Whitley of Hopkinton and Donovan Fenton of Keene told the committee their constituents want to end the ban on recreational use.  

Whitley pointed to a University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll published last February showing nearly three-quarters of Granite Staters supporting legalization.

Fenton said this jibes with what he heard last year on the campaign trail.

“I didn’t meet a single voter, a single constituent that was against legalization,” he said.

Taking the other side was Bedford Police Chief John J. Bryfonski, who appeared before the committee in uniform and spoke on behalf of the N.H. Association of Chiefs of Police.

“All the chiefs will tell you, no amount of regulation, no amount of language is going to change the undeniable fact that legalization and commercialization of cannabis will undeniably increase the prevalence and use of cannabis by our youth in the state of New Hampshire,” he said.

Speaking in favor of the measure at the morning news conference was retired Cheshire County Corrections superintendent Richard Van Wickler. He was representing Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that supports criminal justice reforms.

He said 21 states, including those surrounding New Hampshire, have legalized recreational use of marijuana. Van Wickler said it would be “smart and responsible” for lawmakers to join these states.

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Retired Cheshire County Corrections superintendent Richard Van Wickler speaks at a news conference at the Legislative Office Building in Concord Jan. 25 on behalf of legislation to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Photo/Rick Green

After the news conference, he recalled once booking a man on triple homicide charges at the Merrimack County Jail and then putting another person, a 32-year-old contractor and family man with no prior offenses, in the same holding cell for possessing an ounce of marijuana. At the time this was a sufficient amount to lead to a drug-distribution charge.

“I grew up in the ’70s,” Van Wickler said. “I knew that marijuana was not a dangerous thing. Everybody knew it. I said to myself, ‘For this person to be in the same cell with this other person is probably one of the largest miscarriages of justice ever.’ ”

HB 639 would annul, or remove, records for past marijuana-possession offenses.

It would apply New Hampshire’s existing 8.5-percent meals and rooms tax to marijuana sales at retail stores and allocate this revenue to the state’s retirement system, public education and a substance-use prevention and treatment program. It would also send money to public safety agencies to help detect impaired drivers.

The N.H. Department of Revenue Administration said it couldn’t determine the bill’s fiscal impact, but that based on cannabis sales data from Maine and Massachusetts, the meals and rooms tax could see between $12 million and $24 million in new revenue if the bill passed.

HB 639 has two main sponsors, Reps. Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, and Matt Wilhelm, D-Manchester.

Among the co-sponsors are Sens. Whitley, Fenton and Keith Murphy, R-Manchester.

Osborne said bipartisan support for the bill in both chambers of the Legislature bodes well for the measure compared to previous legalization attempts.

“I would like to point out that there are three or four Senate co-sponsors on this bill and if you know anything about House bills, you know that having three or four senators is quite a bit of support on the other side of the wall,” he said at the news conference.

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About this Author

Rick Green

Rick Green is a former Associated Press news editor, local editor for The Oklahoman and reporter/editor for The Laconia Daily Sun.