The New Hampshire House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has for the first time recommended passage of legislation that would legalize adult-use cannabis in the state, and while this is promising news, the legalization effort still has a long road ahead.
The amount of support in the Senate is unclear, and Gov. Chris Sununu remains opposed to legalization, which could present obstacles, according to Matt Simon, legislative analyst and New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.
“It’s good progress,” Simon told Cannabis Business Times. “It’s not where we need to be just yet.”
State Rep. Renny Cushing’s (D-Hampton) HB481 would legalize possession of up to an ounce of cannabis for adults 21 and older, as well as establish a cannabis control commission to license and regulate businesses. Tax revenue from cannabis sales would go, in part, to substance abuse treatment and prevention, and municipalities where cannabis businesses are located would also get a portion of the funds to help with impaired driving enforcement.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 10-9 in favor of the bill Feb. 21, marking the first time it has approved legislation aimed at legalizing cannabis. (The committee issued negative recommendations of similar bills in 2014 and 2018, which were overturned by the full House before it ultimately approved the measures.)
Next, the legislation heads to the House Ways and Means Committee, which will focus on the details of taxation and regulation. In the meantime, Simon hopes to garner more support in the legislature to possibly overcome the governor’s opposition.
“With the governor being opposed, we believe we’re going to need to get to two-thirds support, and that’s what we’re continuing to work on through the process of the Ways and Means hearing over the next few weeks as we anticipate another House vote,” he said.
It is unclear if the legislation has enough support in the Senate, as well, Simon added. “The Senate is a question. It’s always been more difficult than the House, but the tide really does seem to have turned over there. The senators are really waiting to see what comes over. … There’s no real pressure on them to take a position just yet. … Some are clearly supportive, some are clearly opposed, but many are remaining non-committal. We’ll see what happens.”
The Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Other Drugs, a state commission created to reduce alcohol and drug problems in New Hampshire, could also present a roadblock. In late January, the commission expressed opposition to HB481; although some members did not vote, those who did were unanimous in their opposition.
“That commission opposed medical cannabis for years. It opposed [decriminalization] for years,” Simon said. “It’s not representative in any way of the people. It’s a bunch of interested parties, some representing agencies and departments of government, and other stakeholders who are in the public health and treatment and recovery-type sectors. So, it’s been an issue for the last decade.”
While the committee’s position has had an influence on policy reform efforts in the state, its opposition is not insurmountable, he added. “It’s certainly made it more difficult, but we’ve overcome its opposition before, and we will again.”
It is also promising that some members abstained from the vote, Simon said. “I think what was more significant is that there were, I think, four members of the commission that abstained from the vote. I don’t know if anybody ever abstained in the past. There were at least abstentions this time, which I’ll take as a positive.”
Other cannabis policy reform efforts this legislative session include adding qualifying conditions to the medical program—including opioid use disorder—and allowing home grow for patients.
And, of course, the path to adult-use legalization forges on.
“I believe that we can get to two-thirds in both the House and Senate, but it’s going to be an uphill climb,” Simon said. “The bill will have to continue building support over the coming weeks and months for that to happen."