New Hampshire Takes Criminal Justice Approach to Cannabis Legalization: Legalization Watch

New Hampshire Takes Criminal Justice Approach to Cannabis Legalization: Legalization Watch

A bill that would legalize possession and limited home cultivation has cleared a House committee and may be more palatable to lawmakers than legislation that would create a commercial market in the state.

February 7, 2020

New Hampshire lawmakers have again launched cannabis legalization efforts this year, this time taking a criminal justice approach to the issue.

H.B. 1648 would legalize the possession and limited home cultivation of cannabis for adults 21 and older, and may be more palatable to lawmakers than past legislation aimed at creating a taxed and regulated cannabis market in the state, according to Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

“It just eliminates the existing civil penalty for possessing up to three-quarters of an ounce,” Simon told Cannabis Business Times. “It eliminates criminal penalties for possessing up to six plants, of which three can be mature, and that’s pretty much it. There is no regulation or tax component. It’s a straight-up criminal justice reform, similar to what Vermont passed in 2018.”

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee approved the bill Jan. 28 in a 13-7 vote, and a full House vote is expected sometime this month.

“It’s significant,” Simon said. “It passed in a 13-7 vote and last year, the legalization bill passed in a 10-9 vote, so we gained three votes, which could be attributed to the issue evolving [or] to the bill being simpler and not having a complex regulatory and tax proposal along with it. Either way, it’s a sign of momentum. It’s a sign that we’re continuing to gain support in the House.”

Last year, the New Hampshire House passed a similar bill, H.B.481, which would have not only legalized cannabis, but also created a regulated and taxed market. The legislation passed the House, but ultimately stalled in the Senate after the Judiciary Committee referred it for “interim study.”

Simon is optimistic about the House vote on this year’s bill but fears the legislation could hit a snag in the Senate again, unless lawmakers are more receptive of legalization that does not include a commercial market.

“The House has been much more amenable than the Senate or the governor in previous years and with past cannabis legislation, so I’m pretty sure it will pass the House, hopefully by a big margin,” he said. “Then we’ll go to the Senate and we’ll face more of an obstacle.”

It is an election year, however, and polls have shown strong public support for legalization in New Hampshire, Simon added.

“It’s an issue that’s more popular than any politician in the state at this point,” he said. “Do they really want to go through another election having been prohibitionists, or do they want to get on the right side of this before being potentially challenged by somebody who might be good on the issue and knock them out of office? It used to be politicians were afraid of running for cannabis during an election year, and now I think they should be afraid to vote against it in an election year. Two polls in a row show 68% support for legalization in New Hampshire. That should work in our favor.”

Gov. Chris Sununu, however, might be the largest roadblock to legalization of all. The Republican governor has been largely opposed to adult-use legalization and other cannabis policy reforms in the state, which earned him a D+ grade on NORML’s recent 2020 Gubernatorial Scorecard.

Simon said that unless Sununu changes his mind this year, he could continue to stand in the way of any legalization attempts in the state.

“He talks about how much he appreciates the ‘Live Free or Die’ state and all the wonderful freedoms we have in New Hampshire, yet we’re surrounded by states that have more freedom relative to cannabis, and that would seem to be at odds with most of his other positions,” he said. “Of course, we hope he comes around, and we’ll see if he does.”

Ultimately, a legalization bill lacking a tax-and-regulate component is just this year’s approach to the issue, Simon added; next year, MPP may support legislation to implement a commercial cannabis market in the state.

“This is just a strategy for this year, given we know we don’t have the votes in the Senate for a comprehensive, regulated-and-taxed system,” he said. “The strategy worked very well in Vermont in refocusing the issue as a state criminal justice reform and civil liberties issue. As we’ve seen in Vermont, once it’s legal for adults, often a lot of our opponents say, ‘Well, I didn’t want it to be legal, but now that it is legal, it should obviously be regulated,’ and then they become allies in the push for taking that step.”

MPP has been lobbying, organizing attendance to public hearings, encouraging residents to contact their elected officials and conducting media outreach to build awareness and momentum in New Hampshire, Simon said, and the organization will continue to do so until the state successfully legalizes.

“So much of the support is passive and people assume it’ll happen eventually, and they don’t feel like they need to necessarily do anything,” he said. “A lot of our opponents are really motivating—they think the sky will come crashing down if cannabis is legal, and even though that’s only a few dozen people in the state, they can be really loud if they put their mind to it. So, we have to counteract that with a broad, robust coalition that comes to the statehouse and that engages elected officials and at some point, it will be successful. It’s just no guarantee whether some point will happen in 2020.”

Several other cannabis-related bills have been introduced in New Hampshire this year, in addition to H.B. 1648. One, another legalization bill, would distribute cannabis through the state’s liquor stores. That legislation has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, and Simon noted that it could still be amended to take a different approach to legalization.

Other cannabis policy reform efforts this year include a medical cannabis home grow proposal, S.B. 420, which would allow patients to cultivate their own plants. The Senate approved the legislation Feb. 6, and the bill will proceed to the House for consideration.

The legislature passed a similar bill last year, but the legislation was ultimately vetoed by Sununu. The House voted to override the veto, but the Senate vote fell short of the required two-thirds majority to override the veto in that chamber.

Simon points to the medical home grow bill as an indication of whether a legalization bill has the support to pass the legislature and, ultimately, Sununu this year.

“If that bill doesn’t pass, you might conclude that H.B. 1648 is not going to do very well,” he said. “If they’re not going to let patients have a few plants, are [they] going to let everybody have a few plants? We’ll see."