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Some lawmakers see marijuana case aiding push toward legalization

New Hampshire Sunday News

September 22. 2012 10:12PM

Some lawmakers who support liberalizing the state's marijuana laws say the recent acquittal of a Barnstead man who grew marijuana in his back yard for personal and religious use will advance their cause.

State Rep. Timothy Comerford, R-Fremont, cosponsored a bill to legalize and tax marijuana that the House killed earlier this year. He also voted for a decriminalization bill that passed the House by one vote but failed in the Senate.

The recent jury nullification case in Belknap County Superior Court will advance the conversation about decriminalizing marijuana, Comerford said. 'It's going to be slow and take a long time, but I think eventually our laws are going to catch up with the public's view on this issue.'

Rep. Mark Warden, R-Goffstown, who cosponsored both the legalization and decriminalization bills last session, called the jury nullification verdict 'a fantastic outcome.'

Warden expects the acquittal of 59-year-old Douglas Darrell will be cited whenever the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, of which he is a member, debates marijuana bills in the future.

'This shows we need to start being more open-minded and start reflecting the ideas of our constituents,' he said.

Warden said the case points up a 'disconnect' between the Legislature and the general public. 'The people of New Hampshire ... don't think growing your own marijuana plants is that big a deal, yet we continue to put blinders on year after year and keep it a criminal offense.'

Police and substance abuse experts say decriminalizing marijuana would send the wrong message to young people about a drug they say can lead to addiction and other substance abuse.

But Warden said large percentages of teens and adults use marijuana recreationally. 'These people aren't criminals,' he said. 'They're making their own personal decision, and we need to get the state out of it.'

Comerford said he thinks what happened in the Belknap County case may 'sway' some lawmakers who were on the fence about the issue.

'It shows that the citizenry at large is seeing that this law is unjust, and they're taking heed of what the Constitution says ... and they're not going to put up with prosecutors railroading peaceful people who aren't harming anybody else.'

Comerford, who belongs to the New Hampshire Liberty Caucus, said the verdict 'actually gives me a lot of hope that the people of New Hampshire are really paying attention to liberty.'

Defense attorney Mark Sisti, who successfully raised the right of jury nullification in Darrell's case, said the verdict creates 'a whole new paradigm.'

'The laws prohibiting marijuana that were created in the '30s and '40s have to be scrutinized again,' he said.

That's what happened during Prohibition, when jurors refused to convict bootleggers, Sisti said: 'People decided not to be hypocrites anymore.'

Jury nullification also thrived during the Civil War, when Northern juries declined to convict those accused of harboring runaway slaves, he said.

Sisti thinks the general public likewise is ahead of lawmakers when it comes to marijuana laws. 'In all honesty, what are we doing?' he asked. 'We're prosecuting people for having plants that are naturally occurring.'

Sisti said some polls show at least half of New Hampshire residents support decriminalizing marijuana possession. And he predicted, 'I think you'll see that reflected in jury verdicts.'

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Shawne Wickham may be reached at

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