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March 03. 2013 9:59PM

Lawmakers' strong positions on marijuana evolving

CONCORD - Perhaps inconceivable a generation ago, proposals for limited use of marijuana for medical purposes, decriminalizing possession of small amounts or even outright legalization are considered viable issues in the New Hampshire legislature.

The decisions will be made by people with strong positions on each side of the issue.

State Rep. Robbie Parsons, R-Milton, is one lawmaker who has changed his opinion.

"Up until just recently I have been against any kind of legalization, but in talking to constituents at this particular time, I think to even have it a violation and a penalty is incorrect," Parsons told the Criminal Justice Committee last week. "We should just legalize it, period."

It was a conversation with a constituent that led him to change his view.

"I was staunch against it but the woman was very insistent," Parsons said. "The time has come to send a message to Washington saying 'You know, you guys, it's time, look at what happened in prohibition, people who didn't drink started to drink."

Parsons is a member of the House Criminal Justice Committee, a panel that has been considering proposals for everything from outright legalization to decriminalization of marijuana use.

Another committee is considering a proposal to allow prescription use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Full-scale, smoke-it-if-you-got-it legalization is unlikely to come up for a vote in the current legislative session. Legislation eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana will be studied by the Criminal Justice Committee.

The committee has brushed aside a bill to decriminalize marijuana, voting 12-6 to recommend that it be killed by the full House. Some members indicated that they wanted to wait for the results of committee work on the legalization bill over the summer.

A good part of the debate over greater legal acceptance of marijuana use is a clash between respect for personal freedom and a desire to prevent people from harming themselves and others through the use of something which has no other purpose than to alter the user's mood, attitude and perspective. Nobody has claimed to smoke it to enjoy the flavor.

Advocates of marijuana legalization argue its use is fundamentally no worse than drinking and that penalties are out of proportion to the act,

Rep. Linda Harriott-Gathright, D-Nashua, takes exception to those who claim that marijuana is not addictive or habit-forming.

"It is habit-forming and dangerous to those who use it and drive with a vehicle, " she said. "There are statistics that show people who use it daily, and who are working, tend to be late for work or not perform the way that they should."

Some supporters of decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana say enforcing laws that some choose to ignore diverts law enforcement resources, or results in penalties far too severe for the offense.

"I recognize that prohibition has failed," Rep. Robert Cushing, D-Hampton, said. He called the bill the criminal justice committee plans to study through the summer a "vehicle for some thoughtful discussion."

One advocate of decriminalizing possession of an ounce or less of pot, Rep. Kyle Tasker, R-Nottingham, suggested young people who become ensnared in enforcement efforts may lose their eligibility for federal student loans.

Decriminalization, Tasker says, is a step that removes the harshest penalties.

"This is literally the least we can do, the smallest step we can take, to correct an injustice to (kids) who lose their federal funding," Tasker said.

Lawmakers have been warned by the state Attorney General's Office that legalizing marijuana doesn't eliminate federal laws that make marijuana illegal.

Parsons, the lawmaker who has changed from a staunch opponent of marijuana to favoring legalizing and taxing it, said addressing that part of the issue is part of his deal with the woman whose conversation led him to reconsider his stance last year.

"I happened to know about where she lives and happened to know a federal DEA agent doesn't live far from where she lives," Parsons said. "I said, 'I'll make a deal with you, I'll vote for medical marijuana but you have to call (Sen. Jeanne) Shaheen, (Sen. Kelly) Ayotte and (former U.S. Representatives Frank) Guinta and (Charlie)Bass and get them to change things on the federal level.' "

Parsons said he has seen a change in the perception others have about marijuana laws, including some that surprise him, such as a conversation he had with his father.

"I was talking to him about it, he knows I'm a representative and he says, 'It's time has come,'" Parsons said. "He's a reasonable guy, not a kid in his 40s."



billsmith@unionleader.com


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