CONCORD — Opponents and supporters of legalizing recreational cannabis in New Hampshire squared off in Representatives’ Hall on Wednesday, in what has become an annual ritual in recent years.
Legalization has been debated frequently and has passed in the House, only to be defeated in the state Senate. But this year, with majorities supporting legalization in both chambers, proponents believe they have their best chance yet.
Gov. Chris Sununu has promised a veto should the bill land on his desk, but he could face an override. It was clear from the emotional tone of testimony that the stakes are higher than ever, especially with legalization now a fact in all other New England states and Canada.
Republican State Rep. Patrick Abrami of Stratham, chairman of the study committee that examined the issue for the past year, urged the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to recommend against the bill, HB 481.
“I would strongly suggest you not pass this bill,” he said, promising to make his arguments when the bill is debated before the full House.
Abrami was supported by many speakers to follow, including Kate Frey, vice president of advocacy for New Futures, a public health advocacy organization.
“New Futures strongly opposes this irresponsible legislation that does not protect the health and well-being of our youth and community,” she said.
Frey pointed out that the state has an active medical marijuana program and has decriminalized possession of small amounts. Legalization is neither well-advised nor needed at this time, she said.
Money in the bill to help with addiction treatment is only a promise, not a guarantee, she said.
“We know from the state alcohol fund, we do not receive much for prevention, treatment and recovery,” she said, “so why would this be any different?”
Attorney Paul Twomey, who served on Abrami’s study committee, said the research convinced him to support legalization.
He argued that research shows lower rates of use by minors in states that had legalized; that legalization results in a decrease in opioid use; and that there is no new risk to public safety from legalization.
“What we need is to devise measures by which police officers can tell who is impaired and not impaired,” he said. “This bill provides the money to create a test and train the officers.”
Other speakers in opposition included representatives of law enforcement and youth activity groups. An adult board member of the Raymond Coalition for Youth, William Sparks, argued strongly against the bill, as did young members of the coalition who appeared before the committee as a group.
Bedford Police Chief John J. Bryfonski, appearing on behalf of the state association of police chiefs, argued that marijuana use impairs driving, leads to harder drugs and is used more habitually than alcohol.
“One in five marijuana users use it every day, compared to one in 15 who use alcohol,” he said.
He also disputed the notion that legalization would remove the criminal element from marijuana trafficking.
“Drug trafficking organizations make a lot of money selling marijuana,” he said. “They won’t turn to another product; they will undercut and undersell the legal product as they have done in other states that have legalized.”
Legalization proponent Jim Karwocki of Sanbornton took issue with Bryfonski’s comparison of marijuana and alcohol.
“Every year, 80,000 people die from alcohol; 450,000 a year from tobacco; 150 a day from opioids,” he said. “No one has ever died from cannabis.”
Prior to the public hearing, legalization supporters held a news conference, led by Republican state Sen. John Reagan of Deerfield, a co-sponsor of the bill.
“The Department of Homeland Security reports in the five years of legalization in six states, (marijuana) seizures have declined 78 percent. People prefer to pay for a legal product, even at a higher price,” he said.
“We should keep the momentum on track by joining the states in favor of saner policies for use of the harmless high, cannabis. The production of locally grown, tested, regulated and safe cannabis to adults is more benefit than danger.”
The bill will be heard before at least one more House committee before going to the full House for a vote, and then will move over to the Senate for more committee hearings and floor vote there.