CONCORD — A marijuana decriminalization bill that passed the House 318-36 last month is in danger of being hijacked in the Senate, according to supporters.
An amendment to HB 640
, proposed Tuesday by Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, calls for major changes in the House bill. The most significant would remove a provision that prohibits police from making arrests for possession of small quantities of the drug.
"To make a second offense subject to arrest, or to allow police to arrest someone if they feel it necessary, is not decriminalization," said Matt Simon of Manchester, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.
As originally proposed and approved by the House, HB 640 would reduce possession of less than an ounce of marijuana or five grams of hashish from a misdemeanor to a violation, subject to a fine but not criminal prosecution or arrest.
The bill includes a section that states "no person shall be subject to arrest for a violation … and shall be released provided the law enforcement officer does not have lawful grounds for arrest for a different offense."
That statement is removed from the bill in Bradley’s amendment, along with other changes he described for the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Bradley proposes reducing the quantity subject to decriminalization from one ounce to half an ounce for pot and from five grams to one gram for hashish. His amendment also increases the fine for violations from $100 to $300.
Bradley claims he is proposing the changes largely in response to feedback from the state Chiefs of Police Association, represented at the hearing by former president and Enfield Chief of Police Richard Crate.
According to Crate, the bill as written would "result in legalization in a sense," which made Bradley's amendment necessary.
"Sen. Bradley’s amendment, which we have worked on, satisfies the intent of decriminalization, reducing penalties for small amounts, without legalization," he said.
"The decriminalization of marijuana is a major expansion of drugs at a critical time in our state. Marijuana is harmful and unhealthy, and we want to make sure that message is out there."
Bradley urged representatives of the ACLU, the Marijuana Policy Project and other stakeholders to work with the police chiefs to reach an agreement — "something law enforcement can accept and live with even if they can’t support it, because they don’t feel they can support decriminalization," he said.
Devon Chaffee, executive director of the NH-ACLU, said HB 640 was the result of a lengthy process of negotiation and discussion among many stakeholders, going back to last summer, including New Futures, the statewide advocacy organization focused on substance abuse.
She said the Bradley amendment is not a compromise, but an attempt to satisfy one group of stakeholders that did not participate in those discussions — law enforcement.
"I don’t see Sen. Bradley’s amendment as a compromise," she said. "A vote for the amendment that has been proposed here today is a vote against decriminalization and a vote to allow police to continue to arrest people for possession of small amounts of marijuana," she said.
Defense Attorney Paul Twomey, former legal counsel to the House, was on the team that negotiated HB 640. He criticized the police chiefs for raising their objections at the 11th hour.
"Police chiefs could have come to any one of those meetings. They didn’t even show up at the House hearings on this bill," he said. "Some of the things they brought up we could have easily addressed if they’d just brought them to our attention at an earlier point."
The House has passed decriminalization bills in the past, only to have them defeated in the Senate, often under threat of a gubernatorial veto. This year, however, with full legalization underway in nearby Maine and Massachusetts, Simon feels decriminalization in New Hampshire has its best chance yet.
Unlike his two most recent predecessors, Gov. Chris Sununu said during the campaign that he could support decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The Senate committee is not expected to vote on the House bill or Bradley’s amendment this week, giving stakeholders on both sides of the issue more time to negotiate.
Simon, who has been lobbying for reform of marijuana laws in New Hampshire for the past 10 years, said three of the five senators on the Judiciary Committee are expected to support the original House bill, not Bradley’s amendment, although it’s hard to predict what will happen when the full Senate takes up the measure.
"Now that marijuana is legal for adult use in neighboring states, the world has changed," he email@example.com