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Rep. Adam Schroadter: Penalties for marijuana use in NH should fit the crime

April 14. 2014 4:52PM

THE NEW HAMPSHIRE House generated national media attention in January when it approved a bill that would have legalized and regulated marijuana for adult use. That bill was supported by 60 percent of voters, according to an October 2013 poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, but it was strongly opposed by Gov. Maggie Hassan and many state senators. Accepting political reality, in March the House decided against sending this bill to the Senate.

Fortunately for Granite Staters who would like to see New Hampshire reform its antiquated marijuana laws, the House overwhelmingly passed a more modest bill that would do so. House Bill 1625 would not make marijuana legal for anybody, but it would at least bring New Hampshire’s penalties into line with the penalties found in other New England states.

As the prime sponsor of HB 1625, I was very pleased when it passed the House 215-92, and I’m confident that the Senate will be willing to give this bill the serious consideration it deserves.

The best argument for passing HB 1625 comes straight out of our New Hampshire Constitution. Part I, Article 18 says “all penalties ought to be proportioned to the nature of the offense.” In other words, the punishment ought to fit the crime.

So I ask, what would be an appropriate penalty for possessing a small amount of marijuana?

If we as legislators ask the people who voted us into office, then according to several polls, the answer is that there should be no penalty at all. Polls have consistently found majority support for legalization, with opposition dwindling.

While HB 1625 doesn’t make marijuana possession legal, it at least takes jail and criminal penalties off the table for personal use amounts. HB 1625 simply reduces the penalty for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana to a violation punishable by a fine of up to $100.

Under current law, possessing even a tiny amount of marijuana is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.

The bill also reduces other maximum penalties for amounts above one ounce, again, consistent with Article 18. Possession of up to six plants would remain a criminal offense, but it would be reduced from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor, which can still be punished by up to a year in jail. And although felony penalties would be maintained for the crime of selling marijuana, the maximum prison sentences would be reduced.

If we look at what other states are doing, I think we’ll see that this approach isn’t the least bit radical. In fact, now that Vermont decriminalized marijuana possession last year, New Hampshire is the only state left in New England that still maintains a criminal penalty with a possibility of jail time for marijuana possession.

In Maine, marijuana possession hasn’t been a criminal offense since 1976. Have there been any bad outcomes associated with this policy in Maine? Not according to any data I’ve seen. In fact, according to surveys conducted by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, Maine has a lower rate of teen marijuana use than New Hampshire.

Given the experience of Maine and other states, I see no reason that we should hesitate to pass this reform. We in the New Hampshire House all understand that marijuana isn’t a harmless substance — that it can be abused, as can alcohol, and that it should be kept away from young people — but a strong majority of the House believes the harms associated with this plant are not sufficient to justify a criminal penalty.

I’m confident that senators of both political parties will agree it makes sense to reduce marijuana penalties and apply our limited law enforcement resources more sensibly. We are all truly concerned about violent crime, property crime, and the abuse of truly dangerous drugs like heroin, cocaine, Oxycontin, and meth, so why would we want to continue wasting our limited resources on cases involving simple possession of marijuana?

Regardless of what readers might think about marijuana legalization, I hope we can all agree that our current penalties are excessively harsh and at least ought to be reduced. We should pass HB 1625 so we can allow police and prosecutors to focus their limited resources on more serious crimes.

For offenses involving simple marijuana possession, a fine would be just fine for New Hampshire.

Adam Schroadter is a Republican state representative from Newmarket.

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