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House votes to reduce penalty for possession of small amounts of pot

CONCORD - House Speaker William O'Brien declined to vote on a bill to roll back the penalty for possessing a small quantity of marijuana Thursday, sending it to the Senate on a 162-161 vote.

If O'Brien had voted against the measure, the House would have deadlocked killing the bill.

House Bill 1526 would make possession of half an ounce of marijuana or less a violation punishable by a fine for the first two offenses, but the third offense would be a misdemeanor.

According to New Hampshire law, a misdemeanor is a crime and a person who is convicted of a misdemeanor may be sentenced to jail, while a violation is a lesser charge.

"A violation is an offense that is not 'criminal' in nature," according to the New Hampshire Judicial Branch District Court Service Center. "In other words, while [a violation] may involve conduct which is illegal and may be charged, it is not classified as a 'crime' and, for that reason, a person who is charged with a violation cannot go to jail if convicted."

Supporters said the bill would bring New Hampshire in line with surrounding states and would not blemish a young person's record for simple possession. Opponents argued the bill allowed far too much marijuana for a simple violation.

Rep. Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, said half an ounce is equivalent to 20 to 30 joints. "You've now crossed the line and going into distribution," he said.

The bill does not change state laws concerning growing or distribution of marijuana, which would remain criminal offenses.

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