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Tuftonboro police chief fires back at pot lobby

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 22. 2017 9:09PM

CONCORD - An advocate for legal marijuana claims the fix is in because a commission tasked under a new law to study legalization of pot is packed with some known opponents.

But such an assertion is premature and baseless, said Tuftonboro Police Chief Andrew Shagoury, president of the NH Association of Chiefs of Police. He notes the commission's members have not been announced and the study has yet to even begin.

And, the chief countered, the Marijuana Policy Project's Matt Simon, who contends members will produce an unfavorable recommendation, may not be the most objective on this issue. "Clearly," Shagoury said, "he's a paid lobbyist for legalization."

Debate over the forthcoming study escalated over the past week while supporters of marijuana policy reform celebrated a historic moment: Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill into law to reduce the criminal penalty for possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana, or up to 5 grams of hashish, to a violation.

New Hampshire becomes the last state in New England, following 22 other states nationwide, to "decriminalize" possession of small amounts of marijuana. Since 2008, the New Hampshire House passed a bill to decriminalize marijuana eight times.

It's the latest milestone in terms of Granite State public policy on marijuana, which remains a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the federal drug policy.

Evolving NH Law

Four years ago, after exhaustive and emotional debate, including testimony from people dealing with severe pain and terminal illness, New Hampshire's medical marijuana law became a reality. Then-Gov. Maggie Hassan signed it into law, effective July 23, 2013. The rule-making process was just as exhaustive. Two and a half years later, the state began issuing registration ID cards for qualifying patients and caregivers. There are now four "alternative treatment centers," the regulated dispensaries.

And, just last month, Sununu signed into law additional qualifying medical conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, for the state's "therapeutic cannabis" program.

Twenty-nine states, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia now have some form of medical marijuana law.

Evolving New Hampshire law is occurring as nine states currently have legalized recreational or retail marijuana for adults, with Massachusetts and Maine joining the list in 2016, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill to establish a commission to study the legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana in New Hampshire had, like the pot decriminalization bill, bipartisan sponsors. It was not such a lightning rod. The House passed it on a voice vote. Rep. Timothy Lane, for the House majority report, said it benefits the state to study the pros and cons, given other states' legalization efforts, so lawmakers could make informed decisions.

Before Sununu signed it into law, Simon raised his concerns about the makeup of the commission. He and the sponsors asked Sununu to veto it.

"This commission is not going to be recommending marijuana legalization," he said in an interview last week.

Simon objected to the way the bill was amended in the Senate. The change was that representatives from the Marijuana Policy Project and the American Civil Liberties Union of NH were removed from the commission. The original bill had 22 members. The final version has 17, including representatives from the Attorney General's Office, state Department of Safety, state Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Revenue Administration, Department of Agriculture & Markets, N.H. Medical Society, N.H. Bar Association and the Banking commissioner.

The Association of Chiefs of Police and New Futures, a non-partisan nonprofit organization that advocates for public health and education, each have a representative. The governor will name a public member. The House will name four members, while the Senate will add two.

Strong voices

The governor opposes legalization of marijuana.

Sununu, in an appearance on WKBK-AM radio in Keene on Thursday, repeated what he's told State House reporters: That New Hampshire is not ready for it. He said Massachusetts and Maine are "fumbling around trying to figure out the process."

"To jump right into it would be irresponsible, especially given the opioid crisis," Sununu said.

The debate is not new. Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas remains opposed to it. "It's a gateway drug," he said. "And we have a heroin and fentanyl epidemic."

Former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, a Democrat running for governor, has made his support for legalization of marijuana for adults a regular campaign issue.

A comprehensive study is just what's needed, he says, and New Hampshire has the opportunity to look at "best practices" from other states, and learn from their mistakes.

That is, if the commission is balanced, Marchand said.

"You really want the commission to be even-handed on this," he said.

The commission is charged with reporting its findings and any recommendations for proposed legislation to legislative leaders and the governor by Nov. 1, 2018.

Shagoury, at the Association of Chiefs of Police, had yet to name a representative to the study commission. Other members have yet to be named.

Sheila Vargas, communications director for New Futures, said her organization did not take a position on the study commission bill. A representative from New Futures was proposed in the original bill, as well.

"We don't agree that the outcome is going to be one-sided," she said.

Testimony welcome

It's no secret, given its stated mission, that New Futures remains concerned about the public health impact of marijuana use, particularly among young people. Notably, the new law to decriminalize marijuana, which takes effect Sept. 16, includes "prevention principles" that outline the importance of limiting minors' access to marijuana and preventing marijuana use among adolescents.

"New Futures will continue to oppose legalization and commercialization of recreational marijuana," Vargas said in an interview.

The N.H. Association of Chiefs of Police has traditionally opposed legalization of marijuana.

"Our primary function is public safety," Shagoury said.

Shagoury said the membership would be objective and seek out facts. He anticipates and welcomes testimony from the Marijuana Policy Project and the ACLU.

He puts aside any claim that the commission has any preordained conclusion, based upon past support or opposition to marijuana legislation.

Shagoury said the commission has its work cut out for it, given the many issues to study and the real-time experiments that are playing out in states that have proceeded with making recreational pot legal - all of which have done so by ballot initiative, an avenue not available in New Hampshire.

"Then there's the inherent conflict with federal laws," he said.

Shagoury said there is big money behind legislative efforts across the country to loosen up state and federal laws against marijuana.

"Big marijuana is behind this," he said.

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