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January 18. 2014 11:27PM

Lawmakers' votes on legalizing pot unpredictable, personal

Last week's historic vote by the New Hampshire House to legalize marijuana didn't fall into easy categories of party, geography or generation.

Some liberal Democrats voted against the measure, while conservative Republicans voted for it. Some of the youngest lawmakers voted "nay" while senior citizens said "yea."

Wednesday's 170-162 vote (click here for the roll call) was the first time any legislative chamber in the country has voted to legalize "personal use" of marijuana by adults 21 and older and establish a legal market for selling it, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports such laws.

Colorado and Washington both legalized marijuana for recreational use through ballot initiatives.

House Bill 492 now goes to the House Ways and Means Committee, where it faces tough scrutiny before coming back for a final vote in the full House. And even supporters say the measure appears unlikely to get past the Senate or Gov. Maggie Hassan's promised veto.

Still, the reasons many House members gave for their votes last week seem to illustrate an evolving public policy debate.

Larry Gagne, R-Manchester, a retired U.S. Postal Service employee, started his career as a Manchester beat cop in the early 1970s. Back then, he said, possession of even a single marijuana seed was deemed manufacturing and subject to felony charges.

Gagne, a 69-year-old Navy veteran of the Vietnam War and lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of New Hampshire, said he always voted against relaxing marijuana laws in the past.

But this time, he said, "I did my own research." He studied what happened during Prohibition. "What it did was it made evil people rich."

Likewise, he said, "we've made billionaires out of cartels right now."

Gagne voted for HB 492.

He knows most in the law enforcement community oppose it. But he said, "I would like to take the bad guy out of the equation.

"If New Hampshire can have liquor stores by the side of the highways selling liquor to ... adults, then I see no problem with them regulating marijuana sales just as they do liquor sales and tobacco sales."
 
 
Tara Sad, 60, a Democrat from Walpole, said she has "always" voted to decriminalize (reduce current penalties) or legalize marijuana. But she voted against HB 492.
 
 
The problem was how the bill was drafted, she said, making the Department of Revenue Administration - not Health and Human Services or even Agriculture - responsible for regulating the drug. "What do they know about doing something like that?" she said.

"I was sick not to be able to vote for it, but I just couldn't ... vote for a bill that bad."

Sad also said she would rather wait a year and see what happens in Colorado. "It's going to be a good testing ground, and why should we reinvent the wheel that's already turning?"

Priscilla Lockwood, R-Canterbury, a 77-year-old retired high school teacher, voted for the bill.

"We're putting all these people in jail that we don't need to, so that was one issue," she said. "The other is that it's been around a long time and I haven't seen a lot of terrible harm from it."

She also considered the history of alcohol sales, from Prohibition to taxation. "All those things altogether seemed to make some sense to me. I'm a math teacher and I think logically."

Donna Schlachman, D-Exeter, who said she worked "tirelessly" to pass the medical marijuana law last year, voted no. "I feel very strongly that we need to let that law go into effect and see how we're doing," she said.

Schlachman, 64, a retired occupational therapist, worries that full legalization could hurt the new medical marijuana program if there were ill effects. "That would be my concern, that we'd have a knee-jerk reaction in the other direction and say we don't want to let any of it be legal," she said.

"My vote was really based on my deep concern that we have it available to patients and doctors," she said. "And beyond that, I think it's too soon. We need to see what happens in other states."

Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, is an MIT graduate who lists her occupation as "capitalist" in a directory of elected officials. She voted for the marijuana bill.

"I believe the drug war has failed, and therefore, I'm in favor of deregulating many of our drugs," she said.

McGuire, 60, said the House Republican Alliance took no position on HB 492 because members did not agree. And when it came to the vote, she said, "on one side you had the law-and-order Republicans and the nanny-state Democrats, and on the other side you had the libertarian Republicans and the social freedom Democrats.''

"And a few people who you weren't quite sure which group they fell in, they voted whichever way they felt like."

Charles Weed, D-Keene, a 70-year-old retired college professor who has previously sponsored decriminalization bills, voted "nay" in the final roll call on House Bill 492. But he said his opposition was to the process, not necessarily the proposal.

Weed voted against killing the bill the first time it came up for a vote Wednesday and then voted to reconsider it. But when the House voted to adopt an amendment that few members had read, he said, "the discussion had moved somewhere between chaos and anarchy."

"It seemed what we were doing was chaotic and illogical and it defies my sense of the responsibility of government," he said. "So from that point forward, I voted against it."

Weed also talked with Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, and her misgivings about the measure's reliance on DRA to regulate marijuana sales were "pretty convincing," he said.

"I want to end prohibition. I want the state to get out of this crazy illegality business and incarceration approach," Weed said. "But I believe it is the obligation of government to do a much better job when it's starting to make major changes to the culture and society...."

Almy, 67, who voted against HB 492, said it would require new state regulations to supervise and license growers, retail stores and testing laboratories. "It says DRA is going to do it, which in itself is absurd," she said.
 
Almy, a retired socio-economist, said there's also the question of how the state would "tax something that cannot go through the banks or the credit card companies."

"I think if a committee sat down and worked on it for a year or so that it would not be impossible," she said. "But I worry that it would cost us quite a lot of money up front for the year or two it would take to get it going."

Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, voted for the bill. "Our Constitution says that a punishment must fit the crime, must be proportionate."

And he said when it comes to marijuana, "The penalty is what's creating the harm."

Sapareto revealed that his 17-year-old son recently was arrested "for selling a pot brownie at school." His son was expelled and, instead of graduation and college, now faces trial on a felony drug sale charge, he said.

"He's a good kid and they're going to ruin his life for this," he said. "I don't think the smoke, if he smoked his entire life, could hurt him as much as what they're doing to him."

He said he's heard similar "horror stories" from other families. "I'm ashamed to say that we are guilty of harming and ruining people's lives far beyond the effects of the drug," he said.

"This is why we've got to fix it."

Sapareto expects the Senate will kill the bill - this time. But he also predicts "it's going to be law in four years."

Suzanne Smith, D-Hebron, voted for decriminalization in the past and said she supports legalizing pot and taxing it "in theory." But she voted against HB 492.

"I would like to see something in the legislation that speaks to money toward drug and alcohol abuse," she said. "To counteract the possible social repercussions of what's going to happen when marijuana is decriminalized."

Smith, a homeopath and nutritionist, also thinks New Hampshire should wait to see how the new Colorado law - and its own medical marijuana law - works before taking this step.

"It's too easy in this state where we are always short of money to look for the magic bullet," she said. "Just as I vote against casinos because I'm not sure if the ... risks and the benefits balance out, I don't think we're ready yet."

swickham@unionleader.com


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