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Senate kills bill easing marijuana penalties


CONCORD — With the state in the midst of an addiction epidemic, now is not the time to be sending the wrong message about drugs, several senators said Thursday as the Senate killed a bill to end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

“We are in a war, and the last thing we need is to tell our citizens it is OK to use a little marijuana or any other illegal substance,” said Sen. Gary Daniels, R-Milford.

But supporters of decriminalizing marijuana possession said the state is behind the times and the only New England state that treats simple possession as a crime.

“I’d like to address collateral damage from a war on drugs we lost decades ago — that we continue to fight and continue to amass collateral damage,” said Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield. He said people face criminal charges for growing a plant that can do wonderful things for people suffering chronic diseases.

“We’re obsessed with punishing people, because someone in government decided long ago that marijuana is bad,” Reagan said.

Supporters of reduced penalties say a youthful mistake can follow a person for the rest of their lives in the forms of lost job opportunities, education and community standing.

Several senators noted they passed a bill that reduces possession from a Class A misdemeanor to a simple misdemeanor, which will give judges and prosecutors discretion to lower the penalty and charge to a violation, which does not appear on one’s record.

“We are fighting a war here in New Hampshire,” said Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, referring to the opioid epeidemic that claimed about 430 lives last year and about 100 people this year. “Marijuana is a gateway drug. We’re not talking about medical marijuana here, we’re talking about a gateway drug.”

New Hampshire is the only New England state where possession is still a crime that can prevent someone from serving in the armed forces or on police or fire departments, or in the medical professions.

House Bill 1631 would have made possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana a violation punishable by a fine instead of a misdemeanor. The bill would have also lowered penalties for possessing larger amounts of the drug.

Drug prevention and treatment groups along with law enforcement opposed the legislation, which in the past Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she would veto.

The House has approved decriminalization bills seven times since 2008, only to have the Senate kill them.

grayno@unionleader.com


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