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Granite State neighbors push pot legalization dialogue

New Hampshire Sunday News

December 26. 2016 9:14PM
A close up of a bud on a flowering cannabis plant at a medical marijuana growing facility in Rochester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE)

With recreational marijuana use now legal in Massachusetts — and about to become so in Maine — some New Hampshire lawmakers are preparing for what they see as its inevitable acceptance here in the Granite State.

In the upcoming session, lawmakers will take up separate measures to decriminalize marijuana, and to legalize and regulate it.

Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, the prime sponsor of the decriminalization bill, also wants to establish a commission to study the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana.

It’s time to have a serious conversation about the issue, Cushing said.

Decriminalization and legalization bills have failed many times before. So what’s different this time around? “Two words: Maine and Massachusetts,” he said.

Picture the bridge between Portsmouth and Kittery, Maine, he said. “On one side of the river you can use the product; on the other side of the bridge you can end up in jail,” he said. “And that’s just not a tenable situation.”

Canada is also moving toward legalization, he noted, and Vermont is likely to do so as well.

The New Hampshire House has voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana eight times, Cushing said, but each time the measure failed in the Senate. This time, he expects to have the votes there as well, he said.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton, is sponsoring a bill to create what he calls “a pathway toward legalization.”

Woodburn said he wants to work with lawmakers and stakeholders on all sides to craft a New Hampshire approach to the issue. His bill would set a firm target date, three to four years down the road, “to legalize, regulate and restrict access to marijuana.”

“So it forces the policymakers to be committed to the hard work of defining what this should look like in a truly New Hampshire way,” he said.

The New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police has consistently opposed legalization of marijuana. And Northwood Police Chief Glendon Drolet, the association’s president, told the Sunday News that’s not going to change this time around.

“We’re absolutely opposed to legalization,” he said.

However, Drolet said he believes the group “would entertain a conversation on decriminalization.”

“We definitely want to be involved in that conversation, but we would be looking for several requirements if it was to pass, especially dealing with juveniles,” he said.

Drolet said the chiefs are very concerned about the impact of legalization in Maine and Massachusetts, particularly on highway safety. “It’s still illegal in New Hampshire but these people will be driving into our state and through our state,” he said.

Who’s in charge?

Rep. John Hunt, R-Rindge, is sponsoring a bill to require that any sales of marijuana in the state go through the state liquor commission.

“My bill has nothing to do with legalization,” said Hunt, a 16-term House member who has voted against legalization every time it has come up. He also opposed the medical marijuana bill that became law.

But with two neighboring states legalizing recreational use, he wants to make sure the Granite State doesn’t get caught off guard.

“New Hampshire shouldn’t be behind the curve; we should be ahead of the curve,” Hunt said.

“The last thing we want is to have all these fly-by-night dispensaries popping up everywhere.”

Isn’t he putting the cart before the horse, when recreational use remains illegal both under state and federal law? Not so, said Hunt.

If lawmakers here were to legalize recreational use — or the federal government were to change its mind — Hunt wants to have a regulatory structure already in place. And with Maine and Massachusetts passing recreational use, he said, “I do truly believe that we’re going to have to deal with it sooner rather than later.

“We need to have the cart fully ready and raring to go, so when we’re trying to hook up the horse, we know what we’re hooking it up to.”

Hunt said he doesn’t want to see private sellers here; he’d like to see the same kind of control the state already has over liquor sales, should marijuana someday become legal here. “We are very successful in selling liquor,” he said.

Does that mean the state liquor stores could someday be selling pot? That’s not going to happen, Hunt said.

“As long as it’s a violation of federal law, they will not want to sell marijuana in liquor stores,” he said, because of the risk that federal authorities could move to shut down the stores. “It would have to be separate locations.”

Cushing said it may make sense to put the liquor commission in charge of regulating and selling marijuana if it does become legal. But he said he’s also open to other ideas.

“I don’t have any strong, preconceived notions about how we’re going to move from prohibition to legalizing, regulation and taxation for adults, but I am committed to having a process where people can sit around and sort out the best way forward for New Hampshire,” he said.

The best path

Woodburn noted that in most states, legalization has been “forced on the government by the people,” through referenda. “The elected officials failed to listen, so they went over their heads.”

That’s why his bill calls for a study commission to figure out the best path toward legalization, which he believes is inevitable. “Either we choose to put our heads in the snow or we lift our heads up and we plan appropriately,” he said.

Asked if he thinks legalization is inevitable in New Hampshire, Chief Drolet said he hopes that’s not so.

“Passage in the states that abut you is definitely going to make it an uphill battle to keep it from being legalized,” he said. “But I think there are plenty of people and professions that are against legalization, and that will hopefully keep it from becoming legal in New Hampshire.”

Whatever side they’re on, policymakers agree that New Hampshire is going to be talking about pot in 2017.

“Not having a conversation ignores the will of the vast majority of the people and the practical reality of what’s going on in our communities presently,” said Woodburn.

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