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February 14. 2013 8:43PM

Marijuana hearing brings out all sides

CONCORD - Supporters of an assortment of proposals to relax state laws prohibiting use and possession of marijuana ran head-long into public safety officials at public hearings Thursday.

Lawmakers have filed three bills to ease the marijuana laws.

One would simply legalize and regulate possession of up to an ounce of marijuana while legalizing "pot farms," another would remove criminal penalties for possession of an ounce or less and make it a civil violation similar to jaywalking, while a third would simply remove marijuana from the state's list of illegal drugs.

While lawmakers and state officials considered policy implications of removing criminal penalties for use of marijuana, the hearing was also filled with testimony from marijuana enthusiasts.

Rep Mark Warden, R-Manchester, sponsor of the bill to legalize marijuana and cannibis, said he approached the measure partly as one of civil liberties. Noting that most members of the committee appeared to be over 50 years of age, Warden compared the evolution of attitudes toward marijuana to the changes in technology seen by those members since their youth.

"Just as technology changes, so does culture; behavior changes over time," Warden said. "Why are we stuck with the prohibition of ages ago on this issue?"

Participants debated testing motorists for being under the influence of marijuana and whether it serves as a "gateway" drug, providing the first step toward highly-addictive narcotics.

Valerie Morgan, director of the Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services for the state Department of Health and Human Services, spoke against changing current policy.

She said legalization would make marijuana more prevalent and more acceptable, leading to use of more drugs.

"We're all to familiar with the symptoms and signs of devastation this brings to individuals and families," Morgan said. "We are under-sourced in treating people with drug abuse issues; legalizing marijuana would only add to that problem."

Relaxing marijuana laws was also opposed by Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein, speaking for the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police; the head of the state police narcotics investigation unit and an assistant district attorney for Rockingham County.

All testified that while cases in which possession of small quantities of marijuana is the only charge are rare, officers frequently encounter marijuana use and possession in connection with other, more serious, crimes.

The hearing also brought out the unusual.

One man, identifying himself as a Keene State College, student related his pot-smoking experiences, claiming that they logically lead to the conclusion that "you don't even have to like weed to support it."

One proponent of legalizing marijuana called himself Al Capone and claimed to speak for organized crime in opposing the legalization on the ground it could cut into mob profits.

But his antics were greeted coldly by unamused committee members who had already heard more than three hours of testimony on the first of the three marijuana bills.


wsmith@unionleader.com


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