CONCORD— Lawmakers decided possessing small amounts of marijuana or hashish will have similar penalties to a speeding ticket.
The House voted 215-92 Wednesday to send House Bill 1625 to the Senate. The bill makes it a violation to possess an ounce or less of marijuana or five grams or less of hashish punishable by a fine of not more than $100 for those over 18 years old.
For minors caught with marijuana or hashish, the drugs will be confiscated and their parents notified. They will also have to attend a substance abuse treatment program.
Supporters of the bill say it is about time state law catches up with reality, saying criminal penalties for marijuana possession should have ended years ago.
They said reducing the penalty will allow police and prosecutors to better use their time and resources to address more serious crimes.
“The time has finally come to reduce New Hampshire’s excessive penalties,” said the bill’s prime sponsor Rep. Adam Schroadter, R-Newmarket. “The constitution says the punishment ought to fit the crime.”
But opponents said the change in the penalty needs more scrutiny and sends the wrong message.
“This says marijuana is the drug of choose for the New Hampshire House,” said Rep. Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson. “Is that the message we really want to send?” The bill has some serious flaws that should be addressed and not just passed on to the Senate, he said.
The changes to a violation for simple possession will bring New Hampshire in line with the other New England states, which treat possession as a civil offense.
Possessing more than five pounds of marijuana or one pound of hashish would continue to be a felony with penalties of up to seven years in jail and a fine up to $100,000.
Growing six or more marijuana plants would be a Class A misdemeanor.
The bill was opposed by law enforcement and health officials who said it will make the drug more prevalent and acceptable, which will lead to the greater use of other drugs.
House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee member Rep. Latha Mangipudi, D-Nashua, said the most compelling testimony she heard on the bill was from two defense attorneys who routinely take cases involving small amounts of marijuana.
The attorneys said marijuana possession is for the most part decriminalized, as cases are typically reduced to a violation if the person is able to hire an attorney.
“Those who can’t afford an attorney often walk out of court with a criminal record without realizing the consequences down the road,” Mangipudi said. “This will result in more equal enforcement of laws.”
Other bill supporters said too much of law enforcements’ resources are spent on simple possession cases that take time and drag people through the criminal justice system.
“There were 2,769 marijuana arrests in New Hampshire in 2010, and 2,467 of those arrests — 89 percent — were for simple possession,” said bill sponsor Rep. Keith Murphy, R-Bedford. “We believe that our taxpayer dollars would be better spent addressing crimes like murder, rape and theft.”
Others also praised the House vote.
“This is a big step toward reducing the harms caused by marijuana prohibition,” said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “New Hampshire residents are sick and tired of seeing their tax dollars used to criminalize people for using a substance that is safer than alcohol.”
The House has sent similar bills to the Senate including last year, but the Senate has voted them down.
Gov. Maggie Hassan, who supported the medical marijuana law passed last year, has said she does not support legalization or penalty reductions for possession.