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NH Senate passes amended pot decriminalization bill; measure now heads back to House

By State House Bureau
May 11. 2017 3:48PM
Processing marijuana accounts for a plurality of work at the backlogged State Police Crime Lab in Concord. (Union Leader File Photo)

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CONCORD — New Hampshire is a big step closer to joining the five other New England states in decriminalizing marijuana.

The state Senate on Thursday passed an amended version of a House bill eliminating criminal penalties for possession of three-quarters of an ounce or less.

House Bill 640 as amended was passed by the Senate in a bipartisan 17-6 vote. The bill sailed through the House, 318-36, on March 8.

Because of Senate amendments reducing the amount subject to decriminalization from one ounce to three-quarters of an ounce, the measure will now go back to the House to be reconciled with the Senate version.

The House will likely find the change acceptable, according to sponsors of the original House bill, and Gov. Chris Sununu announced he will sign the measure into law, calling it "common sense marijuana reform."

Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, worked with stakeholders to engineer a compromise which he fought to protect against amendments proposed by decriminalization opponent Sen. Bill Gannon, R-Sandown.

"The reason I am supporting this bill is personal," said Bradley. "A lot of us have kids. I do. Every parent knows kids are what we used to be when we were kids. They try things. I don’t want my kids facing one strike and you are out, because I’ve been there."

Opponents of the bill said it would send the wrong message to youth, especially with the state deep in a drug addiction crisis.

Gannon said states that have decriminalized or legalized marijuana have seen use among young people rise, as society becomes more accepting of the drug.

"I’ve encountered strong opposition from every single police chief in my district," he said. "They find that marijuana is a gateway drug that will exacerbate our addiction dilemma."

Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, who introduced the bill, argued that arrest and incarceration for possession of small amounts of marijuana destroys lives and distracts law enforcement resources from more serious crimes.

If the bill becomes law, possession of three-quarters of an ounce or less will be treated as a violation subject to fines, much like a traffic ticket. The bill allows for three violations in a three-year period before someone faces criminal penalties for a Class B misdemeanor.

"HB 640 has been worked and reworked with many compromises and negotiations," said Hennessey. "We have included a wide range of interested parties. This three strikes in three years approach is seen by everyone as a compromise we can and should live with."

The House has passed decriminalization bills eight times in the past 10 years, only to have them defeated in the Senate, often under the threat of a gubernatorial veto.

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