NH House passes first recreational marijuana bill

By Patrick McGoldrick
On January 28, 2014

Following the national tide of public opinion favoring the legalization of marijuana, the Democrat-controlled New Hampshire house passed a bill - HB 492-FN-LOCAL - on Jan. 16 that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. 

In passing the bill, the New Hampshire House made history by becoming the first legislative body to pass a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana. 

There are currently only two states in the Union - Colorado and Washington - where recreational marijuana is legal, and both states' laws were passed through public referendum, as opposed to legislative action. 

The bill aims to construct laws regarding marijuana consumption, possession, and distribution similar to the state's established alcohol laws, effectively treating marijuana as a controlled substance. The current draft of the bill breaks down its intentions into three laws: first, the bill states that only persons 21 and older have the legal right to the new law - persons under 21 are prohibited from engaging with marijuana; second, persons with the intention to wholesale, retail, cultivate or test marijuana must obtain proper licensing; third, that a tax on the sale of marijuana be levied at both wholesale, manufacturing and retail levels. 

As Colorado and Washington garner more national attention - serving as a litmus test for future nationwide legalization - the local media spotlight will be on the New Hampshire Ways and Means Committee. The committee is scheduled to meet this Thursday to revise the Bill before it is sent back to the House, where it is likely to pass again, according to Laura McCrystal of the Concord Monitor. McCrystal is basing this prediction on sources in the Merrimack County. 

Despite promising momentum for proponents of the bill, New Hampshire residents are unlikely to see dispensaries next to their local grocer anytime soon.

Governor Maggie Hassan has publicly stated she is against legalizing recreational use, affirming in a statement to WMUR that "it's the wrong message to send to young people" and she would further veto any such bill that made it to her desk. 

This hardline position against recreational marijuana comes not six months after Governor Hassan signed House Bill 573, effectively legalizing the state-wide use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. New Hampshire is presently one of 20 states to allow marijuana for medicinal purposes.

In a WMUR poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, it was found that more than half (51 percent) of adult residents support legalizing marijuana for recreational use. The support increased to 60 percent when those polled were explained the details of HB-492,  the bill currently under amendment in the House Ways and Means Committee.

"The whole point of elected officials is to be the voice of the people, right?" junior and environmental science major Conor Madison said, when asked his opinion on Hassan's promise to veto HB-492 against public opinion. "We've got acres on acres of forest, the people know what those woods are good for; it's a shame the New Hampshire government doesn't." 

The House voted 170-162 in favor of HB-492, though not strictly across party lines. Marijuana legalization has characteristically been divided between party lines - Democrats voting in favor of legalization and Republicans against. In the New Hampshire legislature 106 Democrats and 64 Republicans voted for the Bill, with 82 Democrats and 79 Republicans voted against. 

Governor Hassan, a Democrat, opposes the bill. On the behalf of the Governor, her staff posted a Facebook status on Jan. 16, following the House ruling that read, in part: "She [Governor Hassan] does not support further efforts to legalize marijuana ... the Governor believes we should focus on addressing our substance use challenges and strengthening public health through measures like Medicaid expansion." The Facebook post currently has 129 likes and 1,372 comments, the vast majority of which oppose the governor's position.

While the moral arguments for and against legalizing recreational marijuana elude party classification, the language of the bill focuses heavily on the State's fiscal impact. 

Major sources of financial gain from the bill are derived from a combination of a tax levy and saved public resources that can be allocated to more serious crimes or projects. 

The bill states a planned tax on retailers and manufacturers at $30 per ounce and a 15 percent sales tax. The Department of Revenue Administration at this time cannot determine the fiscal impact on the state the bill would have, but general estimations regarding savings are outlined in the bill by referencing the freed resources that the bill would grant.

Under current state law regarding the possession and sale of marijuana, anyone found with under an ounce of marijuana is guilty of a class A misdemeanor - subject to a maximum of one year in prison and a $2,000 fine. Persons caught selling or with possession-with-intent-to-sell are subject to felony charges contingent on the amount of marijuana the individual was caught with. Felony charges range from a minimum of three years in prison and a $25,000 fine for under an ounce, to 20 years in prison and a $300,000 for amounts of five pounds or greater. 

HB-492 would legalize possession under an ounce, and do away with felony- level charges. The bill estimates savings could be $275 per misdemeanor and $756.25 per felony. Further, in cases where assigned counsel attorneys were used there could be savings of up to $1,300 for a misdemeanor and $4,100 for a felony charge. 

The average annual cost to incarcerate an individual in a country correctional facility is $35,000, according to the New Hampshire Association of Counties.   

Class A misdemeanor charges are strict, but Deputy Chief Kelly of the Durham Police Department said class A misdemeanors are rarely charged.

"I can tell you from experience," Deputy Kelly said of typical marijuana violations, "a first- time offender with no priors will typically get their sentence reduced to a violation offense and a $350 fine."     

In a media interview posted on the N.H. NORML site (the N.H. chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), New Hampshire chapter director Erica Golter supported the New Hampshire initiative to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.

"Everything you need to feel better physically and emotionally can be grown in a garden," Golter said.


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