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Change in marijuana laws now a wait-and-see issue

Sunday News Correspondent

September 16. 2017 9:27PM
As the state's marijuana decriminalization law goes into effect, members of law enforcement are nervous. (File photo)

HAMPTON - At midnight on Saturday the state's decriminalization of marijuana law went into effect, and while some say it's a good thing to reduce the punishment for recreational use, those in law enforcement are wary about how this will play out on the local level.

New Hampshire State Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, who is on the committee for criminal justice and public safety, is the sponsor of HB 640, which reduces the penalty for possessing 3/4 of an ounce or less of marijuana, or 5 grams or less of hashish, making it a violation level offense.

Under the law, offenders can be fined $100 for a first or second offense. Any subsequent offense within a three-year period carries the possibility of a $300 fine.

If an adult is caught a fourth time, they can be charged with a Class B misdemeanor.

Cushing said decriminalization has been 40 years in the making, and it is unfair for residents to face harsh penalties for personal marijuana use when the state promotes liquor stores built along New Hampshire's highways. He said taxpayers currently spend an average of $6 million arresting and prosecuting people for small amounts of pot.

"It's failed public policy," Cushing said Thursday.

Those who work in law enforcement don't buy the argument that there will be great financial or time savings once the decriminalization law goes into effect. They point out that officers will still need to confiscate and process the marijuana, file reports and testify in court if someone refuses to plead guilty and pay the fine through the mail.

"It doesn't make life easier. It makes it more complicated," explained Dover Police Chief Anthony Colarusso.

Colarusso said there are a number of issues with the complicated new law. Officers cannot arrest anyone for possessing marijuana, and all of the offender's information must remain confidential. To ensure the law is properly enforced, he is outfitting officers with scales.

Colarusso said pot is not safer than alcohol, and can easily be laced.

"Marijuana is just as dangerous as alcohol, and in some cases, even more so," Colarusso said. "Many drugs are being mixed with other drugs. You don't know what you're getting."

Rochester Police Capt. Jason Thomas said officers foresee challenges within the court system as they try and prove people have broken marijuana related laws.

"We hear the state lab will probably not be testing, so how is the court going to proceed on this? Is an officer's testimony going to be enough?" Thomas said.

Thomas said Rochester is already seeing a spike in driving while intoxicated cases due to the heroin epidemic. Some members in the law enforcement community believe decriminalizing marijuana may lead to more people driving under the influence.

So far this year, Rochester has had 61 DWI arrests. In 24 cases, the driver was on narcotics, Thomas said.

Chief Andrew Shagoury of Tuftonboro Police Department, who serves as the president of the NH Association of Chiefs of Police, said the new law is poorly worded and unnecessary.

"They could have just changed the penalty, and it would be much easier to manage," Shagoury said.

Shagoury said one of the biggest misconceptions people have is that marijuana use will be legal starting Sept. 16.

"One of my concerns, and it's a big one, is people don't understand the difference between decriminalization and legalization. I don't want someone making a mistake, especially a younger person who doesn't know the difference," Shagoury said. "That's what scares me as much as anything, is that people don't know the difference."

Shagoury said police chiefs are also worried because there is nothing that stops people from driving around with open containers of marijuana in their vehicle. He said that in Vermont and Colorado people are required to keep pot in sealed containers while driving.

Shagoury said in states that have legalized marijuana use, crash data suggests accidents and fatalities increased after legalization.

Kate Frey, who is the vice president of advocacy at New Futures in Concord, said they are primarily concerned about the negative effect of marijuana use on youth. The organization did not oppose HB 640 because money from the fines is earmarked for prevention efforts.

Frey said as the perception of harm from marijuana use decreases, teen use increases. Frey pointed out that today's marijuana products, such as edibles, are extremely potent.

Frey said even though they aren't opposed to the new law because of the money associated with prevention programs, they do not support legalization of marijuana.

"We are completely opposed to legalization in our state," Frey said.

John Burns, the director of SOS Recovery in Dover, Durham and Rochester, said the recovery community is divided on the issue of marijuana legalization. While most people support decriminalization, many are skeptical about legalization because both sides are guilty of showing bias for their position, Burns said.

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