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Senate approves three bills to combat drug crisis

State House Bureau

February 04. 2016 6:34PM

CONCORD — The Senate Thursday approved three bills that allocate about $5.5 million intended to help combat the drug addiction epidemic sweeping the state.

The bills would establish drug courts statewide, provide grants for law enforcement and upgrade the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, all recommended for early action by the legislative task force on the state’s drug crisis.

Although the Senate approved all three bills on unanimous votes, lawmakers spent about an hour debating the wisdom of putting $5 million into the state’s rainy day fund at the end of this fiscal year before approving the amendment to the drug court bill on a partisan 14-10 vote.

Democrats argued the money may be needed for other programs to help with the drug crisis that claimed about 400 lives last year.

The rainy day fund is to be used in an economic emergency, said Sen. Andrew Hosmer, D-Laconia, but there is an opioid epidemic killing a person every day in New Hampshire.

“If the money is available,” Hosmer said, "It should be put into recovery centers and treatment centers," adding what good does it do to set up drug courts if the services are not available to treat those who qualify for the program?

But Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, said the provision is needed to protect the state’s finances if the two-year operating budget is going to be opened up to pay to combat the drug crisis.

“We have to get these bills through the House and they have made clear to the Senate they do not want any additional spending,” Morse said. “They don’t want to open up the budget. I think eventually logic will prevail, but you have to have some kind of system.”

The bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett, said he was disappointed that instead of coming together in a bipartisan way and sending a message that lawmakers want to solve the state’s biggest problem, they are fighting over the money.

“That is the message we are sending and that is a very big problem,” Boutin said.

But Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, said they were disagreeing on a fiscal policy, not on what needs to be done to help fight the drug crisis.

Senate Bill 464 would allow counties to apply for matching grants to establish drugs courts in superior courts across the state and to use existing programs and additional treatment and recovery services to help program participants. The bill would spend about $2.8 million over the next 18 months for new drug courts and an administrator to oversee the expansion.

Drug courts target addicted habitual offenders who frequently return to the criminal justice and corrections systems. Under the program, participants are placed in treatment and recovery programs under strict court supervision.

The Senate also passed Senate Bill 485, establishing a grant program to help fund drug interdiction projects such as Granite Hammer in Manchester.

Local police departments would be able to apply for the grants that would total about $2.3 million over the next 18 months.

Also approved was Senate Bill 522, which provides $130,000 to upgrade the hardware and software used in the state prescription drug monitoring program. Lawmakers earlier approved a bill signed by Gov. Maggie Hassan that requires more physicians, other prescribers and pharmacists to use the monitoring program.

The bills will go to the House to begin its review of the bills.

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