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April 19. 2012 10:54PM

Hearing on decriminalizing marijuana draws a crowd

CONCORD — Cannabis was again the subject of debate at the State House, as the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday considered bills that would decriminalize possession of up to a half ounce of marijuana and allow for the cultivation of industrial hemp.

The decriminalization bill, House Bill 1526, is the most controversial of three cannabis-related bills making their way through the Legislature, after the House surprisingly passed it in March by one vote.

Whereas marijuana-related hearings typically draw large numbers of advocates, at Thursday's hearing there was a large contingent of students opposed to changing the law, in addition to law enforcement officials.

“This would undermine the fundamental message in the schools and that parents try to teach, and this is that using marijuana is a bad choice, is the wrong choice,” said Assistant Attorney General Karin Eckel, who was also speaking on behalf of the state police chiefs association.

Supporters of the bill argued, however, that current law is not proportionate to the crime, saddling young people with criminal records and in some cases sending them to jail.

“The effect of marijuana convictions on young people includes the inability to be employed in most government agencies or to join the military. It means they can't get student loans,” said Claire Ebel, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

The bill would make possession of up to a half ounce of marijuana a civil violation punishable with up to a $250 fine. A third offense would be considered a Class A misdemeanor, with up to a $1,000 fine and possible jail time, which is the current penalty for a first offense.

For all the debate before the committee, the bill stands little chance of making it into law. Gov. John Lynch has vowed to veto it, and it is highly unlikely that the three-fifths majorities in either chamber will be willing to overturn a veto, given its narrow victory in the House.

Still, opponents said it is important for the Legislature to send a message by rejecting the bill.

“For some kids, the only reason they don't start smoking marijuana is because they're afraid of the law,” said Jessica Turgeon, a junior at Franklin High School, who testified alongside several other students belonging to the Franklin Youth Initiative. “When kids hear it's like getting a parking ticket it's like having no penalty.”

House Bill 1615, concerning the legalization of industrial hemp, has drawn less attention, but it may have better prospects than some of the other cannabis-related bills lawmakers are considering this session.

The House passed the bill by a wide margin last month, after the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 15-1 to support the bill.

The bill would remove industrial hemp from the state's list of controlled substances, allowing farmers to cultivate the plant for its oils and fibers, which are used in a wide range of products, including balms and clothing.

“The farmers I talk to, they would be the great beneficiaries if this is grown in New Hampshire,” Greg Pawlowski of NH Common Sense, which promotes the relaxation of cannabis and marijuana laws, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It would allow them to diversify their crop fields and save quite a bit of money, as well as make a lot of money.”

Law enforcement officials are opposed to the bill.

Timothy Pifer, the director of the Department of Safety's state forensic lab, said one of the main problems the bill posed was that it would require tests to determine whether cannabis plants were being grown for use as a drug or as hemp – at considerable expense.

“We'll have to fund instruments that can differentiate, which can cost $200,000 each,” he said.

Such measurements would be necessary to determine if the plant contains more than .3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the chemical associated with the mood altering effects of marijuana.

Supporters of the marijuana decriminalization bill questioned whether criminal penalties were helping to address the problem, an argument to which at least one senator appeared to be receptive.

“Do we have a problem with prescription drug abuse?” was the question put to the assistant attorney general by Sen. Jim Forsythe, R-Strafford, who is the lead sponsor of a medical marijuana bill that was passed with wide support by the Senate. “Absolutely, we're in the midst of a crisis,” Eckel responded.

The Judiciary Committee did not take action on the bill.


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