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April 11. 2013 11:08PM

Marijuana decriminalization bill called flawed by many

CONCORD - Even several marijuana decriminalization supporters urged a Senate Committee Thursday not to pass House Bill 621, which would reduce the penalty for simple possession to a violation, such as jaywalking.

However, repeated convictions would not bring enhanced penalties under the bill sponsored by Rep. Kyle Tasker, R-Northwood, and because of this flaw, all penalties would be eliminated for simple possession of marijuana.

The Senate Judiciary Committee was told it is time to end the prohibition on marijuana, which bill supporters say is less harmful than either cigarettes or alcohol, both of which produce revenue for the state.

But opponents, including the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, the Attorney General's Office, The Governor's Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and three Dover Middle School students, said the bill sends the wrong message to young people.

After the hearing, Gov. Maggie Hassan reiterated her opposition to decriminalizing marijuana.

Under the bill, a person 18 years old or older possessing less than one-quarter ounce of marijuana would be guilty of a violation and a fine of up to $200 and would have to forfeit the cannabis.

Those under 18 years old would face the same penalties and would have their parents notified, and be required to attend a drug prevention program and perform community service.

If they do not complete the program and perform the service, the person faces fines of up to $1,000.

However, the bill includes a provision that would require anyone caught with marijuana to also have been selling, transporting or growing it in order to be found guilty, meaning there would be no penalty for simple possession.

That concerned several committee members who pressed law enforcement officials about that section of the bill. Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, who is an attorney, noted there would be no penalties at all if the person is over 18 years old and no enhanced penalties for repeated offenses.

Several opponents of the bill said that provision is a good reason for killing the bill, and some supporters noted the flaw and suggested the committee study the bill for a year.

Matt Simon, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, noted the bill has flaws that need to be addressed before it is passed. The priority this year is the medical marijuana bill currently before the Senate as well, he said.

He told the committee this is the fourth decriminalization bill the House has passed since 2008, which is reason enough for further study given the changing attitudes about legalizing marijuana.

Supporters of the bill said the current laws make criminals out of young people and a conviction affects their lives long into the future. Changing the law would allow the state to save the cost of putting marijuana users in prison as well as saving lower court and law enforcement expenses, said Rep. Rick Watrous, D-Concord.

"The prohibitions are not working. The harsh penalties are not working," Watrous said. "We need to stop wasting precious resources in enforcing these laws and instead put some common sense into New Hampshire's marijuana laws."

He and others noted 24 states have decriminalized marijuana and New Hampshire is about to be surrounded if Vermont approves legislation this year as expected.

Bill supporter Mark Warden, R-Goffstown, noted Massachusetts decriminalized marijuana several years ago and there has been no increase in crime, as law enforcement claimed would happen.

But bill opponents said it would send absolutely the wrong message to the state's young people, telling them there is little risk in the drug's use.

Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein, speaking for the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, said his organization continues to oppose decriminalizing marijuana for all the same reasons it has for decades, that is still a federal crime, that it a hallucinogen, that it causes brain damage in young people, and is a gateway to dangerous, highly addictive drugs.

He contends the change would save little money for law enforcement, noting any marijuana would still need to be tested at the state lab, and cases would still have to be prosecuted in the courts.

New Hampshire State Police Lt. John Encarnaco said a big concern is that the bill would remove prosecutorial discretion.

He disputed contentions that people charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana are serving jail time, noting that most simple possession charges are often reduced to violations.

"In my 20-year law enforcement career," Encarnaco said, "I have never seen anyone go to jail solely on the basis of having a small amount of marijuana."

But others disagreed, including activist Richard Paul who helped organization marijuana smoke-ins or "4/20 celebrations" in Keene in 2009.

He said he did not have the money to pay the $420 fine when he was convicted in 2009 and spent 12 days in jail. "Don't tell me people don't go to jail for possessing marijuana," he told the committee.

The House passed the bill on a 214-115 vote.

The committee did not take a vote on the bill after the hearing.

The committee also heard House Bill 153, which would allow growing of industrial hemp as an agricultural crop in the state.



grayno@unionleader.com





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