January 15. 2014 6:08PM

NH House votes to inhale: Gives initial OK to legalizing small amounts of marijuana, but veto promised

Senior Political Reporter

  • If NH eventually were to legalize pot, will you be a customer?
  • Yes
  • 33%
  • No
  • 67%
  • Total Votes: 3751

CONCORD -- The New Hampshire House Wednesday spent nearly three hours debating and eventually giving initial approval to a marijuana legalization bill that Gov. Maggie Hassan has already promised to veto if it reaches her desk.

The bill would legalize possession of one ounce of marijuana for people 21 and older and lays the groundwork for imposing a state tax on sales and regulations on sales and cultivation.

If it does become law, which is unlikely, New Hampshire would join only Colorado and Washington state in legalizing the substance for recreational use.

The key House roll call was a 170-162 vote in favor of sending the bill to its Ways and Means Committee for review of a proposed 15 percent sales tax on marijuana sales, which advocates said will generate $25 million to $30 million in revenue annually, and for consideration of inherent costs.

That panel will eventually send the bill back to the House for another debate, and if it passes again, it would then be sent to the state Senate, where passage is uncertain at best.

But even if it clears that hurdle, it would then face Hassan's veto pen. She reiterated her opposition to the bill last week.

Hassan last year signed a bill allowing the medical use of marijuana, but said she opposed any further decriminalization.

In a series of bizarre votes, the House initially voted to kill the bill by the narrowest of margins, 170-168. But it then voted 173-165 to reconsider that vote, allowing debate to continue.

The next key vote was a 170-168 against killing it -- a reversal of the initial vote -- and finally, after nearly three hours, the bill passed, 170-162.

Under the bill, an ounce or less of marijuana would be sold for recreational use through a licensed retailer. The state would impose a sales tax on marijuana purchases, at the rate of 15 percent.

It would be up to the state Department of Revenue Administration to come up with rules governing the collection of tax revenues.

A poll last fall conducted by the University of New Hampshire for WMUR television showed that 60 percent of Granite Staters favored the idea of legalizing small amounts of marijuana, while only 36 percent were opposed.

But law enforcement officials have long opposed the idea.

The bill was introduced last year, but then retained and sent to the House Criminal Justice Committee for review during the summer and fall. When it emerged in November, however, the committee opposed it on an 11-7 vote, recommending that it be killed.

Committee opponents said the bill is bad public policy, harmful to public health and safety, and will be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce and regulate.

Backers on the committee is a potential revenue source "whose time has come."

Leading support for the bill on the House floor Wednesday was prime sponsor Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, who said that with marijuana use having been widespread for many years, "The reefer madness of the past is a bygone thing."

Vaillancourt said that if marijuana is legalized, "most people will use less.

"If we legalize marijuana, we take it out of the hands of the black market," Vaillancourt said. "Since it will be legally available over the counter, no one will need to purchase it from dealers on the street. Thus, street dealers will, by and large, go out of business."

But Rep. William Butynski, D-Hinsdale, a retired substance abuse expert said, marijuana use "has been known" to lower IQs in young people by as many as six points.

And, he said, according to state figures, "People under the influence of marijuana are twice as likely to become involved in motor vehicle accidents as those who are not using marijuana."

Common sense, he said, means that more availability will lead to more access and more use.

Rep. Ruth Gage, D-Goffstown, favoring legalization, called for "honest education and regulation" rather than "criminalizing adults."

Rep. Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, said that unlike alcohol laws, the current bill does not address at what point someone who smokes marijuana is too impaired to drive.

"How does this impact our driving while intoxicated or our driving under the influence laws?" he asked.

"With alcohol, there is a (legal) limit to which you can drink alcohol before you are impaired," Jasper said. There is no corresponding limit for marijuana mentioned in the bill, he said.

"How do we protect our people on the roads from people who are now legally ingesting a legal product and are now going out on those roads?" asked Jasper.

"Is this House going to say, 'We'll worry about that later?' That is not responsible," Jasper said. "It puts us on dangerous ground."

After the vote, Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project said, "House members made history today, and they are clearly on the right side of it. Marijuana prohibition has been an enormously expensive failure. Most Americans, including 60 percent of New Hampshire residents, agree that it is time to adopt a more sensible policy."